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Nicaragua Lesson

The past seven years have not been easy for Nicaraguans who have peacefully opposed the drift of the Sandinista government. They have been harassed and repressed by would-be totalitarians at home, and undercut and ignored by friends abroad, especially in the United States.

The shortcomings of U.S. policy in Nicaragua were illustrated recently by Times correspondent Richard Boudreaux. One report described a visit to a Honduran base camp, where anti-Sandinista Contra fighters patiently await more U.S. military aid so that they can resume their guerrilla war against the regime in Managua. The other covered a peaceful protest march last Sunday by the broadest anti-Sandinista coalition yet assembled there--a demonstration that drew 4,500 persons, from Communists to right-wing businessmen. Contras and civilians both want to change Nicaragua’s government, but the difference in their approaches is instructive.

The Contras and their leaders talk a brave game but are doing little. Millions of dollars in humanitarian aid from Washington probably makes them the best-fed and -clothed guerrillas in history.It’s easy for them to talk confidently about future victories after the arms start arriving again. But in seven years of fighting the Contras have achieved little except to harass the Sandinistas and give them a scapegoat to blame for all of Nicaragua’s problems.

Most of Nicaragua’s problems stem from an economy that is in shambles as a result of constant warfare and that feeds discontent among the populace. But many outsiders thought that organized displays of discontent with the Sandinistas died out last July, when police arrested several leaders of the movement after an opposition rally turned violent. But on Sunday the government had to relent and stand aside for yet another demonstration. So the loyal opposition--which includes 13 political parties, several labor unions and business organizations and elements of the Roman Catholic Church--thrives, with nothing like the U.S. support that the Contras enjoy.

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There is a lesson here for President-elect George Bush, if he is at all tempted to follow President Reagan’s stubborn, macho policy toward Nicaragua. If he does, he will fail as surely as Reagan and his Contras did. A Bush Administration would be better off doing what it can to encourage the loyal civilian opposition inside Nicaragua as it struggles to change things in that country peacefully.


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