Miami — Nicaraguan rebel leaders, rocked by the Iran-contra arms scandal, say they have pinned their hopes of riding out the storm on a diplomatic drive for support in Central America and urgent efforts to unify all anti-Sandinista guerrilla forces. Only success on those two fronts, and clear military gains, offer hopes of persuading the United States Congress to continue contra aid next year, top rebel officials say. Without such funding, they concede privately, their chances of posing a serious threat to the Sandinista government are minimal.
``Our top priority now is Central America,'' says Leonardo Somarriba, secretary-general of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), the umbrella contra group. ``We have to do intense work of persuasion to win more open support from Central American governments.''
At the same time, UNO leaders assert, they are on the verge of agreement with another rebel organization, the Costa Rican-based Southern Opposition Block (BOS), on a common outline for a future government.
BOS, which describes itself as a ``social democratic'' group, has long distanced itself from UNO, contending that UNO is unduly influenced by followers of the former Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
The contras' special thrust in Central America has emerged from meetings among UNO leaders here in Miami, in the wake of revelations that money from secret US arms sales to Iran was used to fund the rebels.
``That affair will have little impact in Central America,'' says contra leader Arturo Cruz. ``The support base that the region could represent has not changed, we just have to ensure a coherent Central American voice with regard to Nicaragua.''
One of the rebels' major problems at the international level, adds Mr. Somarriba, is that ``Central America is said not to be worried about Nicaragua.'' The contras' challenge, he argues, is to make it clear that Central America is worried about the Sandinistas and to convert that concern into support for the contra cause.
Nicaragua and its neighbors are still publicly committed to seeking a political solution to the regional crisis through the Latin American-sponsored Contadora peace process. But those negotiations have stumbled often since their beginnings in 1983. Diplomats from the US's regional allies, such as Honduras, have recently spoken openly of Contadora's imminent collapse.
Even while Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador have pursued negotiations, all have lent themselves to the contra effort to overthrow the Sandinistas. The rebels maintain bases in Honduras and Costa Rica, and until the capture of American Eugene Hasenfus in October, ran a supply flight operation out of El Salvador.
Guatemala and Costa Rica are two key elements in the contra drive to convert this unofficial help into open and expressed political support, a senior UNO official says. Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo, who has sought to play a mediating role in the region since his election a year ago, appears to be their major target.
But UNO officials acknowledge that in order to win clearer regional support, they must appear to present a serious alternative to the Sandinista government.
``We have to make ourselves look like winners,'' says Adolfo Calero, leader of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest UNO group. That hope, rebels leaders say, rests on their ability to show clear military success against the Sandinistas in the near future, and on efforts to overcome persistent divisions within the opposition.
On the military front, Mr. Calero, says the contras aim to use the recently approved $100 million in US aid to ``carry the war the length and breadth of Nicaragua, to create awareness among Nicaraguans of the Sandinistas' vulnerability, and of the possibility of our victory.''
But that goal appears far fetched, military experts in both Managua and Washington say. They say the Sandinistas enjoy too great a military superiority for the contras to strike significant blows in the months ahead.
UNO officials say they have made political progress in joining with BOS, since the two organizations signed a general statement of broad principles last June.
``We have to coordinate with the BOS, because we are not going to win without unity among all Nicaraguans, and because the [US contra-aid] law obliges us to make positive efforts to arrive at unity,'' says UNO political secretary Alfonso Sandino. The joint statement expected next month ``cannot be too specific,'' Somarriba says. ``But it will be enough to sell'' as a sign of unity.
The rebels are directing their political efforts at themselves and Central America, officials explain, because while Washington is preoccupied with the Iran affair, they do not expect to be able to influence Congress by direct lobbying. But the goal is to convince US lawmakers that beyond the current furor, the contras are a viable force worth supporting.
For, as one senior rebel official said, without US aid ``we would enter a serious crisis. People saying we have managed before without it and we could manage again are just bragging.''