In a recent television program, Rep. Michael Barnes vehemently expressed his opposition to the alleged U.S. covert operations in Nicaragua, which he compared with the American imperialist landing of the Marines in that region in the 1920s. That comparison, a favorite of the Latin American left, is totally misleading.

The Marine landings of the 1920s, in Nicaragua and other Caribbean areas, were obvious acts of imperialism. At a time when the United States faced no challenge in the Western Hemisphere, military force was used, or abused, to preserve American economic and political supremacy.

But the U.S. position in the Caribbean and Central America has drastically changed since the 1920s. In 1933, for example, by simply withholding diplomatic recognition, the United States was capable of toppling a revolutionary government in Cuba. Five decades later, the United States has not only been incapable of overthrowing a communist regime in Cuba, but has also failed to prevent Castro from sending troops to Africa, from expanding his influence in Central America, and from building a formidable military machine, dangerously close to vital American military and trade routes.

Of the many factors that help explain this dramatic turn of events, one stands as the most relevant and, at least for the United States, the most ominous: the increasing presence of the Soviet Union in he Caribbean. This Soviet menace, which has forced the United States to alter its global strategy, should be measured not only by the military equipment sent to Cuba, or Nicaragua, but also by the ideological orientation of the regimes that the Soviet Union promotes and supports: expansionist communist governments that are not really anti-imperialist but anti- American--an essential distinction too often ignored by the United States.

In Latin America, traditional anti-imperialism, usually a nationalistic resistance to American economic penetration, nonetheless harbors a desire to emulate the United States and a dream of reaching American economic standards. Quite different, the essence of anti-Americanism is total rejection of everything the United States represents, from democratic elections and free enterprise to the Peace Corps and rock music.

Consequently, while any improvement in the economic relations between the United States and Latin America usually ameliorates anti-imperialist feelings, there is almost nothing the United States can do to reduce anti-Americanism. The United States was still giving economic aid to Nicaragua when already the Sandinistas were teaching Nicaraguan children songs about the United States' being "the enemy of humanity," and proclaiming their intention to aid any group fighting the American "monster" in Central America. As in Cuba, the proclamation was backed by a continuous increase of the Nicaraguan armed forces, closer ties with the Soviet Union, and some kind of intervention in neighboring countries. To compare this type of aggressive, militaristic, pro-Soviet regime with the weak and harmless Central American governments of the 1920s is a dangerous historical simplification.

This failure to recognize the true nature of today's struggle in Latin America, plus the liberals' traditional reluctance to admit that a "revolutionary" government can be brutal or repressive, are perhaps the reasons for the double standard that many liberals apply to Central America. In the case of El Salvador, those liberals dismiss as irrelevant any Soviet, Cuban or Nicaraguan covert intervention, and attribute the political turmoil in that country to deep internal problems. In the case of Nicaragua, however, they reverse their logic, dismissing internal problems as non- existent and attributing political violence to American covert operations. Thus, the same group that pressures the U.S. government to recognize the Salvadoran guerrillas as a legitimate political force demands that the United States stop any aid to the guerrillas in Nicaragua.

But the truth is that the Sandinistas, who have replaced Somoza's personal dictatorship with their own ideological dictatorship, are responsible for most of the political problems they are now confronting. By squandering national and foreign economic aid, repressing all forms of dissent, insulting the pope, curtailing religious activities and brutally mistreating the Miskito Indians, the Sandinistas have alienated vast sectors of the Nicaraguan population and provoked an intense popular anti-government reaction. The expanding commitment to stand against Nicaragua's government, which has even affected democratic Costa Rica, is basically the result of the Sandinistas' ac- tions, not of any American covert operations.

Whatever U.S. involvement in the growing Central American crisis might be, it is utterly naive to ignore the Soviets' role in the area and to present the Sandinistas as innocent victims of American imperialism. A Costa Rican diplomat focused more accurately on present Sandinista problems when he acidly commented: "Nadie puede jugar con fuego sin quemarse"--Nobody can play with fire without getting burned.