THERE ARE two new elements in Nicaragua's savagely spiraling civil war, and together they provide a glimmer of hope that a cease-fire will be imposed before all possibility of a compromise political resolution is lost.
The first new element lies in the achievement of a tentative organizational unity among the disparate elements - ranging from guerrillas to business conservatives - of the opposition to dictator Anastasio Somoza. They have set up a commission to negotiate a cease-fire and to solicit outside mediation of Nicaragua's struggle. Until now the fragmentation of the opposition has seemed irremediable. That gave a certain plausibility to President Somoza's claim that there was no middle way between his rule and a communist takeover. But now the anti-Somoza elements may be coalescing.
The guerrillas apparently realize that, though they could crack the old order, they cannot by themselves create a new order. Enough moderates and conservatives may have gotten aboard the anti-Somoza train early enough to legimize themselves as fit political partners of the guerrillas. The progress of an anti-Somoza coalition, if one is consolidated, will be painful. But for the first time the prospect of a viable national alternative is in view. The United States, relieved to finally find a way of backing anti-Somoza forces without seeming interventionist, is cheering it on.
The second new element lies in the creeping internationalization of the conflict. This takes two forms. First, outsiders are moving to offer mediation. The Organization of American States may be too influenced by the military governments n its ranks to play an effective role, but a number of individual nations, including Venezuela and Mexico, are likely candidates. If the appeal for mediation by the anti-Somoza coalition can be matched by mediators of stature and skill, then President Somoza may come to the sensible conclusion that mediation, far from representing intervention, offers a face-saving way to move Nicaragua from his own personalized rule to a more modern and effective style of government.
Then, important quarters in other military-led governments of Central America seem to be coming to the judgment that the instability brought on by the President Somoza's efforts to hang on is dangerous and possibly contagious and that a transition to representative government should be arranged in Managua with all deliberate speed. In Hondoras, El Salvador and even Guatemala, these elements are trying to make sure that the military and the police do not find a pretext to come to the Somoza dynasty's aid.
This has healthy implications for the whole string of small countries between Venezuela and Mexico, and perhaps for others elsewhere in Latin America. The dominant message they seem to be getting from the travails of the Somoza leadership is that they must make their governments more responsive to their people.It's too early to say this judgment will prevail. The point remains that Nicaragua's ordeal has a meaning extending far beyond the borders of that unhappy land.