For Nicaragua, the change at the top in the State Department has meant a change in the words but not in the music.
Alexander M. Haig Jr. was explosively vocal about Nicaragua, calling it "a totalitarian, militarized state . . . subservient to Cuba and the Soviet Union." He often threatened to blockade it. His successor, George P. Shultz, has not mentioned it.
But Shultz is a quiet man and does not speak much of foreign policy. During his first week in office, he showed up at a balanced-budget amendment rally on Capitol Hill, and last week he returned for the tax bill.
In fact, you hardly hear anything about Central America any more, as the world turns its attention to the noisier calamity in Beirut. Least said, soonest mended, the State Department believes, as it advances its sneaky plans to do in the revolutionary government that still has a shaky hand on the helm in Managua.
Nicaraguan Ambassador Francisco Fiallos, who came here six months ago with some hope of patching things up, told reporters that when he calls at the State Department, he is told to his face the fact that "our relations are going to get worse."
He sees Thomas O. Enders, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and says, "We are always smiling at each other." But with the smiles, Fiallos says, "they practically say they have got to get rid of us."
One reason the State Department is smiling these days is that it has found itself a cat's-paw in Central America. Honduras may be that area's second-poorest country and may just have elected, after protracted military rule, a democratic government, but it is strategically located on the borders of both El Salvador and Nicaragua, making it a perfect candidate for a lovely little proxy war.
The commander of its armed forces, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, is a dead-keen anticommunist and a devotee of the "preventive repression" approach of Argentina, where he took his military training. Honduras has been free of the ghastlier excessess of oligarchy, as practiced by its neighbors, and actually had a modest tradition of free speech and a free press. "We are different," Hondurans used to boast.
But since a visit here in July by the new president, Roberto Cordova, accompanied by Gen. Alvarez, Honduras sees itself in mortal danger from enemies within and without. Scores of peasant leaders have been jailed, and citizens are exhorted over radio and television to ready themselves to "defend the fatherland against incursions from over the border."
For Nicaraguans, the most ominous words of late were spoken by Gen. Alvarez in an interview for Mexican television. He said, in reference to the dangers newly perceived, that "if no other possibility exists to preserve the peace, Honduras is in agreement that the U.S., as a friendly country should intervene militarily in Central America."
To Fiallos, this means dispatch of U.S. troops to finish off his Marxist government. He is probably wrong. Sending arms is one thing to the U.S. public; sending men into foreign jungles is, since Vietnam, quite another.
The administration's plans to make Honduras its provocative patsy are proceeding merrily on the covert and overt side. The $19 million CIA campaign to destabilize the Nicaraguan government is proceeding. The U.S. Embassy staff in Honduras has been beefed up. One hundred military advisers, double the number in El Salvador, have been imported without a squawk.
Joint U.S.-Honduran army maneuvers were held along the Nicaraguan border in July. Honduran troops are helping out against guerrillas in El Salvador, and a $21 million appropriation to expand three Honduran airfields -- presumably the better to strike at Nicaragua -- has passed Congress.
In the debate last week, the usual people said the usual things about the folly of widening the war. But Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who tried to block the money on grounds that it would be used for nothing but bloody mischief, went down in crushing defeat. He pointed out that Honduras has the best air force in Central America -- 39 combat-ready aircraft against Nicaragua's seven.
The administration is also counting on former members of the late Anastasio Somoza's hated National Guard, who are encamped along the border with Honduras. Reaganites are not fussy about their friends in these instances.
However, a self-exiled Nicaraguan hero, Eden Pastora, the fabled "Commander Zero" of the revolution, is. After vowing to take arms against his old Sandinista comrades, he suddenly called for retreat. He did not wish to be "used" by the Somozistas in their border raids, he said.
Some distressed observers are hoping that Honduras is just going along for the ride, raking in its tripled military allowance and saying what Washington wants to hear, all the while murmuring under its breath, "You provide the body bags, we'll provide the bodies."