SINCE their stunning February electoral defeat by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Nicaragua's Sandinistas have been a party divided, confused, and in search of a new identity. Last week they found one.
As the party celebrates the 11th anniversary of Sandinista revolution today in the wake of a violent nine-day strike by government employees, the banner that the Sandinistas are likely to hoist highest will be the one defending workers rights. The workers were demanding higher wages and protesting a move to redistribute land to those who owned it before the Sandinista revolution.
Observers here say party leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra's direct participation in the settlement that ended the most serious threat yet to Mrs. Chamorro's government, has brought the Sandinistas increased political leverage and greater unity in the ranks at a time when other forces threaten it with disarray.
``Little by little the party is recuperating. The strike and the settlement have bolstered the Sandinistas' organization,'' says Adolfo Delgado, a Sandinista sympathizer who lives in Managua. ``Every time the government takes action against the workers it strengthens the party.''
But the cost of gaining political leverage with the government has apparently come at the expense of broader popular support.
Gaining ``political space doesn't necessarily translate into popular support,'' says a Latin American diplomat. ``On the contrary. People in this country don't want more violence. And they know that if this strike had gone any further it would have been an insurrection.''
Such assessments come as the Sandinista party enters what promises to be a long and difficult period of restructuring and self-analysis, as it struggles to reestablish itself along more pragmatic and less ideological lines.
It is not clear exactly what role, if any, Sandinista leaders played in actually launching the strike. Party officials and workers say the action was called by the union.
``They [union leaders] didn't ask us if they should go ahead, and I think that even if they had asked us they might or might not have followed our advice,'' says Commandante Luis Carrion, one of eight members of the party's ruling directorate.
But when violence erupted in the streets of Managua ``the Sandinistas saw the gravity of the crisis and sought negotitations,'' says Oscar Ren'e Vargas, a political analyst close to the Sandinistas. ``The party didn't start the strike but it took advantage of it once it was under way.''
Such distinctions are lost on many Nicaraguans to whom the Sandinistas look more like spoilers than defenders of the working class, as they wreak havoc on Chamorro's economic plan just 11 weeks after she took office.
``This poor country is in ruins, and now, with all of the trouble the Sandinistas have been making, it's just going to get worse,'' says Maria Zamora, a domestic worker who lives in Managua. ``All the Sandinista's want to do is get back into power.''
These conflicting views of the Sandinistas' role in Nicaragua's latest labor conflict are just one example of the fine line the nation's largest political party treads as it struggles to rebound. In addition to domestic support, international opinion is also at stake.
``The Sandinistas have to be very careful,'' says a West European observer. ``If they collaborate too much with the new government they will disappear. If they oppose it too much they face international criticism.''
The debate over what the Sandinista party should represent has already led to division and dispute in the ranks.
``There are problems and contradictions in the party now, the biggest of which is deciding what the Sandinistas should be in the future and how to make it a democratic party,'' says Sergio Ramirez, former Nicaraguan vice-president under Ortega.
At a national assembly last month in the town of Crucero, which aptly translates as ``the crossroads,'' Sandinista representatives voted to establish election by secret ballot of leaders at all levels of the organization. They also set February 1991 as a date for a party congress.
An exhaustive four-part series of articles published in the party newspaper Barricada after the assembly provided a strikingly open analysis of the reasons for the Sandinista's electoral defeat.
While citing US ``aggression'' and the contra war as the main reasons for their loss of support, the Sandinista leadership itself assumes a large share of the blame.
``We were excessively triumphal,'' read the resolution. ``We failed to analyze and discuss with attention the information available on deterioration of our electoral base.''
The communiqu'e pointed to the party's strict vertical structure as a primary reason for its loss of support, also citing ``authoritarianism, lack of sensitivity to the worries of the bases [of support], muzzling of criticism'' and ``bureaucratic styes of rule.'' The El Crucero resolution also called for creation of an ethics commission.
Amid this public airing of dirty laundry, the commandantes themselves are making some surprising statements. Referring in an interview to the Soviet Union as a ``great example of totalitarianism,'' Carrion explains that from his point of view the Soviet system prior to Gorbachev ``exercised excessive state control that impeded individual liberties.''
And Cuba? ``The space for individual liberties [there] is also excessively reduced,'' he says.
Did the Sandinista mistakenly copy the Cubans? ``We never exactly followed that path but nevertheless we received more influence that perhaps was good for our own political projects,'' responds Carrion. After coming to power in a revolution and ruling during a war, the Sandinistas have a lot of adapting to do...''
``For the first time we find ourselves in the opposition in a democratic context, committed to a constitution that states that power will be obtained through elections,'' Carrion says.
Adds Ramirez: ``In 10 years I never had a chance to govern this country in a time of peace.... So if you ask me how to run a country in a time of peace, I don't know. This is what I need to learn.''