Tegucigalpa, Honduras — One major question hangs over the confusion surrrounding Nicaragua's recent raid across the Honduran border: Why did the Sandinistas launch the alleged attack on Honduran-based ``contra'' guerrillas only days before the US Senate was due to vote on President Reagan's request for $100 million in aid to the rebels? In the wake of Mr. Reagan's warnings about a ``red tide'' sweeping across Central America from Managua, the Sandinistas' reported incursion into neighboring Honduras appeared to hand the US President a propaganda weapon on a plate. Nicaragua denies the incursion occured; the US and Honduras assert the opposite.
The move recalled Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's visit to Moscow last May, just days after the US House of Representatives refused Reagan's request for $14 million in contra aid. Soon after, the House reversed itself and approved $27 million in ``nonlethal'' aid. Many congressmen said that Mr. Ortega's trip convinced them he enjoyed dangerously close ties to the Soviets, and that the contras should be helped.
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill III recently said that had congressmen known of the Sandinista incursion before they voted against the $100 million, the vote may have gone the other way.
This supposed diplomatic blunder on the eve of a key congressional decision has led some foreign and local observers to speculate that Managua may in fact be calculating that continued US contra aid could do Nicaragua more good than harm.
Nicaraguan Vice-President Sergio Ram'irez said recently, ``there is certainly the risk'' that if Reagan's request is refused ``he might feel left with no option'' but to send US troops in. But he cautioned that to suggest Nicaragua wants Reagan's aid request to prosper in order to stave off a likely US invasion ``is very cynical.''
For some time, the Sandinistas have seemed almost resigned to the prospect that Congress would approve some sort of aid to the contras, if not the $100 million. To fight Reagan's request, Managua did little more than ask its Washington-based public relations firm to do routine lobbying of congressmen.
Suggestions that Managua is shedding only crocodile tears over renewed contra aid are based on three lines of reasoning.
Justifying internal problems: With the contra war draining over 50 percent of the national budget into defense, Managua has a ready-made, and to a large extent justified, explanation for the economic hardships afflicting Nicaraguans.
But it has tended to blame all the country's problems, from the suspension of civil liberties to the shortage of consumer goods, on ``foreign aggression.'' Should US funding for the contras dry up, that justification could no longer be used, although it could be years before the situation returned to anywhere near normality.
Avoiding dialogue with opposition: Foreign ministers from the ``Contadora group'' of Latin American countries last month urged Reagan not to push for contra aid, so as to leave political space for the negotiations that they hope will lead to a regional peace treaty.
Those negotiations would almost certainly involve talks between Managua and the contras, for which the Sandinistas are currently showing no inclination. Suspending US aid to the contras could clear the way for pressure on the Sandinistas to enter such talks.
Staving off contra invasion: Military chiefs in Managua have recently expressed confidence that they can cope with the contras even if they do receive the full $100 million. Independent military analysts also expressed doubts over the contras' ability to pose a credible military threat, regardless of funding.
If the aid goes through, is used, and bears no clear fruit on the battlefield, they say, Reagan could find it harder to take further steps against Managua. Aid opponents could argue that if after five years, over $200 million in aid, and US advice, what more can be done for the contras?
At the same time, Managua is worried that if contra aid is refused, Reagan would find his choices narrowed.