NICARAGUA is once again on the verge of national tragedy. The elected government of president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro exercises limited, and steadily decreasing, authority. The economy is collapsing, and political violence is spreading.
The United States can help Nicaragua avoid national disintegration - but only if it is prepared to shift policy sharply, to cease trying to use economic leverage to reshape internal Nicaraguan politics, and to join with Latin American countries in organizing an external mediation effort to assist Nicaraguans in recreating a viable government.
President Chamorro took office three years ago, after an election considered freer than any before it in Nicaragua. She enjoyed some early successes.
Runaway inflation was brought under control. The military was cut to one-fourth its previous size. The Contra rebel army was largely demobilized. Basic political freedoms were restored and human rights respected.
But, over time, Chamorro and her advisers came to rely on an inherently unstable mix of support. Nicaragua became dependent on foreign assistance, particularly from Washington.
For political support, the Nicaraguan government leaned more and more heavily on its erstwhile opponents, the Sandinista Front, allowing them to control the armed forces, police, and intelligence services.
The National Opposition Union electoral alliance that had supported Chamorro's candidacy turned to active opposition.
Nicaragua's internal problems were compounded last year when a group of US congressmen, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, stopped the disbursement of $100 million in scheduled aid. The funds were eventually restored, half in December 1992 and the remainder in May 1993, but considerable damage had been done. The economy was floundering, the government's credibility had eroded, and the opposition became more virulent.
Earlier this year, Washington began to impose increasingly stiff conditions on aid to Nicaragua, particularly after discovery - also in May 1993 - of a massive arsenal belonging to a Salvadoran rebel group and evidence of possible Sandinista connections to international terrorism.
US conditions, in essence, require the Chamorro government to sever ties with the Sandinistas. They demand that former Sandinista leaders, such as Armed Forces Chief Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra, be removed from their posts.
Perhaps Chamorro should have taken such measures earlier; by now she may have lost the capacity to do so, and insistent US pressure only weakens her hold on power.
In such political uncertainty, the Sandinistas will not easily relinquish key resources of power, although some now are calling for the party to openly oppose the Chamorro government. Nor will a purge of the Sandinistas necessarily satisfy the government's opposition on the right - where shifting alliances among many factions are often driven by personal ambitions and historic enmities.
Nicaraguan politics is not so much polarized as it is dangerously fragmented. No group can gain its objectives, but none appears ready to compromise.
The country resembles a bankrupt company where creditors, stockholders, employees, managers, and customers are all struggling to claim shares of a declining enterprise - with few concerned about the future of the enterprise itself.
Since 1991, the US and Latin American nations have undertaken, through the Organization of American States (OAS), to restore democratic politics in Haiti, Peru, and Guatemala.
Nicaragua is a different case. The elected president, Chamorro, nominally retains power, and constitutional processes have not been assaulted. But Nicaragua's political system has stopped working.
Now, therefore, is the time for preventive actions - before Nicaragua deteriorates beyond repair - to stop the crumbling of the nation's public institutions and to prevent the emergence of pervasive violence that will undermine Nicaragua's brief experiment with democratic politics and could lead to the army taking power or to renewed internal warfare.
The US should not be seeking to impose a unilateral solution on Nicaragua by threatening to cut off aid, as Congress is now doing. That would only diminish Washington's ability to influence events and undercut the already beleaguered Chamorro government.
Washington should instead join with other OAS members to gain the government's agreement to launch an intensive and sustained process of mediation to assist Nicaraguans in finding a workable solution.
The country's competing political forces must be brought into negotiations, with all sides pushed hard to make concessions that will allow the country and its institutions to hold together until national elections are held in 1996, as scheduled, or on an agreed upon earlier date.
That is the objective that should guide US policy toward Nicaragua.