AFTER a prolonged, wide-ranging debate, Nic-aragua's National Assembly approved a code last week designed to put the relations between civilians and the Sandinista Army on more democratic footing and to ease the exit of Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra from the Army's top job.
Most participants in the debate have termed the new military code a significant step in institutionalizing democracy in Nicaragua - a country ruled autocratically during most of its history - by putting the Army under firmer civilian control. The new law also potentially removes an irritant that has plagued United States-Nicaragua relations for several years.
Consensus over the law is not established, though, and how some provisions will work in practice is still questionable.
Assembly president Luis Guzman, a Christian Democrat, argued that the new code, approved Aug. 23, for the first time goes far toward establishing full subordination of the Army to civilian authority. Mr. Guzman argues: ``The code clearly states the president's right to name and dismiss the Army chief. And it's unheard of in Nicaragua for the Army commander to be given a fixed term of office'' - in this case five years.
In a further measure aimed at assuring civilian supremacy, officers and soldiers who commit crimes against ordinary citizens will now be tried in civilian courts.
Nicaragua's armed forces arose out of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s, but some still doubt the Army's loyalty to the Chamorro government.
Opponents of the new code say that though this law overtly gives President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro full power over the military, in reality she will exercise little control over it. Political commentator Emilio Alvarez, a member of Nicaragua's civilista movement, a group seeking complete abolition of the Army as in Costa Rica, says ``the role of the president in this code is strictly ceremonial. She only signs what the military orders her to.''
The much-debated formula devised for selecting the Army's commander in chief establishes that while the president chooses, she does so only after top officers assembled in a so-called military council propose a candidate.
What happens if President Chamorro, who is to choose a new Army commander in December to replace General Ortega, doesn't like the Army's recommendation? The Army is thought certain to propose Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Joaquin Cuadra, second in command and the only officer besides Ortega to wear the rank of general.
``The military code is not an Aladdin's lamp that solves all the problems between the executive and the Army, '' says Army spokesman Lt. Col. Ricardo Wheelock. ``If the president chooses someone else, it will cause a crisis.''
The possibility of such a crisis, along with the absence of a civilian defense minister in Nicaragua, has led conservatives to question the new code's value, even referring to the changes it effects as ``cosmetic.''
While the bill passed with the backing of Sandinistas, Christian Democrats, and centrist deputies loyal to Chamorro, a bloc of legislators from the ruling National Opposition Union opposed and at times boycotted the proceedings.
Also controversial is the creation of a Military Social Security Institute to provide officers with housing, life insurance, and retirement benefits. The law mandates civilian participation in running and auditing the institute.
But critics charge that the Army's shadowy network of businesses will compete unfairly with the private sector, and, as in other Central American countries, will make the Army an independent economic force, difficult for civilians to keep tabs on.
Army spokesman Colonel Wheelock does not hide the Sandinista military's pretension to turn its social security apparatus, which will eventually accumulate considerable funds, into an expanding economic force. The prospect of the Army wielding real economic clout, and even becoming an important institutional investor, raises hackles in a big business grouping in Nicaragua, which urged Cha-morro to veto the bill.
Despite the controversy, US officials put a positive spin on the proceedings. One official termed the debate ``a major accomplishment of the Nicaragua political process,'' saying the result of the vigorous discussion on the issue reflects ``the best consensus that could be developed at this time.''
This attitude is noteworthy in that the US has long criticized the Sandinista Army's independence. US pressures are considered largely responsible for Cha-morro's announcement last September that Ortega would be replaced. Since that moment, the US has sought to contribute to the Nicaraguan debate by sending experts from war colleges to lecture on civil-military themes in a democracy.
US officials make clear, however, that approval for the process does not yet signal US willingness to engage the Sandinista Army in an aid or collaborative relationship.