Nicaragua leader Daniel Ortega apparently has dropped all pretense that the Sandinistas are interested in democracy or democratic reform.

This past week's appalling actions have amounted to an all-out assault on free speech, right of assembly, free press, and other fundamentals of liberty.Sandinista forces, at Ortega's instruction, used rifle butts and tear gas to disperse a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration by 10,000 Nicaraguans in the village of Nandaime. Thirty-eight people, including political opposition leaders, were arrested.

His only explanation: "We cannot continue being tolerant of those who want to take advantage of the (political) space."

This was followed up in short order by shutting down Radio Catolica, the voice of the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua; the closing of the independent newspaper La Prensa; and then the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador and seven other American diplomats.

President Reagan responded by kicking out the Nicaraguan ambassador and seven of his staff, but that hardly will bring freedom to Nicaragua.

Ortega's increasing belligerence towards political opposition is a direct slap in the face to the entire Nicaraguan peace process. And it indicates just how difficult it is going to be to attain political plurality in one-party Nicaragua.

In effect, Ortega seems to be saying, "I got what I wanted when Congress cut off aid to the Contras. Now it's business as usual."

Unfortunately, business as usual in Nicaragua is carried out with gun butts, tear gas, and the arrest of those who don't toe the party line.

This growing tragedy can be laid directly at the door of the U.S. Congress. House Speaker James Wright and others encouraged a regional peace plan, and then cut off all military aid to the anti-government Contras - without waiting to see if the Sandinistas would keep their promises of democratic reform.

By ending military assistance to the Contras, Congress left them with no leverage at the bargaining table. Peace talks have stalled and Ortega is showing his contempt for democracy.

Those who opposed an early end to aid for the Contras can now say, "I told you so." But that's small comfort to the people in Nicaragua who still yearn for an open and democratic government.