IN Washington there will be sighs of relief from the White House to Capitol Hill when Violeta Barrios de Chamorro is inaugurated as president of Nicaragua today. The issue of Nicaragua, which was so divisive in Washington during the Reagan years, now enters a different stage. The debate about Nicaragua used to center on guns - whether or not to give them to the contras. Now it will be about money.
The Soviet Union will certainly wind down the economic support it had been giving the Sandinista government. Mrs. Chamorro will look to foreign aid from Washington to make up the difference.
``We're talking around half a billion dollars a year for the foreseeable future,'' says Robert Kurz, a Latin America specialist at the Brookings Institution.
Though US aid for Nicaragua is unlikely to be as controversial as support for the contras was, its path won't run smooth if recent experience is any indication.
In the wake of Chamorro's election on Feb. 25, President Bush sent Congress a supplemental 1990 budget request for a quick $300 million in aid, which was coupled to a pending request for $542 million for Panama. Bush called for Congress to approve these funds by April 5. As of this writing, the supplemental funding request had yet to pass.
The progress of Nicaragua aid is almost a textbook case in how things don't get done on Capitol Hill. To begin with, while most lawmakers agreed Nicaragua needed the money, they disagreed over the request for Panama.
Scheduling was a problem. The traditional Easter-Passover recess took most members of Congress out of town for the first 2-1/2 weeks of April, further delaying supplemental foreign aid passage.
Complicated turf battles between congressional committees slowed things still further. Finally, little things just got in the way. At one crucial point the House did not act on the aid but instead adjourned because members wanted to attend a posh dinner thrown by broadcasters.
In the grand tradition of Congress and college students, a late-night Senate press-out was planned to put the final piece in place on Nicaragua and Panama aid before Chamorro's inauguration.
``It could well pass late'' in the evening of April 24, says a knowledgeable staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Bush called repeatedly on Congress to move faster on this issue, but the White House isn't grousing too much about slow progress. Administration officials say they just want results.
Nicaraguans might not have felt that they were very high on the congressional agenda, but ``once the money actually comes through all is forgiven,'' says a State Department official.
Of the $300 million in Nicaragua aid requested for 1990, about $60 million would be allocated to purchase agricultural supplies and oil. Another $60 million would go to development projects such as maintenance of roads and other infrastructure.
Balance-of-payment supports to shore up the Nicaraguan economy would account for $75 million, and $50 million would be used to settle part of the $234 million in overdue payments Nicaragua owes to international financial institutions. Forty-seven million dollars would pay for refugee resettlement and repatriation of contra fighters.
The Bush administration has requested that Congress approve a further $200 million in aid for fiscal year 1991. This money could be a critical down payment on Nicaragua's economic future. The combination of the US-backed contra war, US economic sanctions, and Sandinista mismanagement had by the beginning of this year reduced Nicaragua's economy to the level it was right after World War II.
``They need the cash,'' says Brookings's Mr. Kurz.
Bush's lifting of US sanctions should also give the Nicaraguan economy a much-needed boost. By one estimate, restoring Nicaragua's quota for sugar exports to the US could earn the country $33 million a year.
The wave of Sandinista-backed strikes that swept Nicaragua last week shows how fragile Chamorro's hold over the economy may be, however. And it shows how much the Sandinistas and outgoing President Daniel Ortega Saavedra remain a force to be reckoned with.