New and stronger pressures are needed on the "reprehensible people" who govern Nicaragua in order to force them into democratizing their country, according to Elliott Abrams, the State Department's new top policy-maker for Latin America.

Abrams, who became assistant secretary for inter-American affairs in July, said in a tough-talking interview this week that his top priorities -- in no particular order -- are the Latin debt situation, narcotics control, Central America and U.S. relations with Mexico. Those relations have improved following the recent earthquake in Mexico, he said. He acknowledged that four years of military attacks on Nicaragua by U.S.-backed "contra" rebels have not yet induced significant change in that country's leftist Sandinista government. "I would reject the view that that means the policy isn't working. I would take the view that we simply have not provided enough pressure."

Asked what additional pressures he would seek, Abrams noted that the Sandinistas "get aid from a number of countries. I would like to see it stopped."

"Aid to Nicaragua by anybody, including the Europeans, should be conditioned on democratic reforms," such as an end to censorship, he continued. He also cited stronger diplomatic efforts and continued military pressure as "absolutely crucial."

Abrams' assessment of the situation in Nicaragua was one of the administration's harshest descriptions to date. "It is our view that the Sandinistas are communist, and that they do not believe in democracy and they do not want it," he said.

"Anything that they do, for example allowing [the opposition newspaper] La Prensa to remain open, or reducing or halting the flow of aid to the FMLN [guerrilla coalition in El Salvador] . . . is in the nature of a concession under pressure. It is not something they do because they believe they should be doing it."

Abrams, 37, who served three years as assistant secretary of state for human rights, said the Sandinistas "may still have some hope that divisions in Congress will save them," but "I find complete consensus that the Sandinistas are really reprehensible people . . . that they are communist and that something needs to be done to force them to compromise."

Asked if that did not contradict the administration's view that communist governments by definition do not compromise, Abrams said, "This would be a first. That is why it takes so much pressure."

Although the contras have made no major military gains, "they are holding their own and that's important. It means it's impossible for a communist regime to be consolidated . . . that is a central achievement."

Abrams said the administration's proposal to deal with world debt by boosting World Bank and commercial bank lending was "a significant change" in U.S. policy, "a strong statement that our answer in the long run to the debt problem is growth; it is not austerity."

Relations with Mexico "are in fact in very good shape right now," in part because U.S. earthquake aid "was handled very well on both sides," Abrams said.

He said he will "not be the assistant secretary for Central America," but for the whole region.

"This was an area of unbelievable controversy," he said, "but that's simply not true any more. On El Salvador there really is virtually wall-to-wall consensus," primarily because of domestic political changes in the United States.