Don't punish contras for executive branch mistakes

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IN recent weeks hundreds of Sandinista troops have been fighting in neighboring Honduras where forces of the Nicaraguan resistance are encamped. But here in Washington, ironically, a leading topic of discussion is whether Congress should withhold aid it openly appropriated for the Nicaraguan resistance just a few months ago. At the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), which keeps an office on Connecticut Avenue, a political leadership that is already in debt because of the military purchases it made while the Boland amendment was in effect now finds itself with new troubles. UNO can fight the Sandinistas. Our Congress the group can only persuade. And Congress is in a touchy mood.

But Congress has little right to retract contra aid just now. After a half-dozen contradictory Nicaragua policies since 1977, Capitol Hill finally seemed to settle upon an appropriation for the resistance. But no sooner is Congress confronted with the possibility that Iranian money went to the contras via US contacts than some members wonder anew about delivering the promised aid package.

Why? There is still no evidence that the contras received anything like the amounts generated by the arms sales to Iran. More to the point, the justice of the cause of the Nicaraguan resistance is not at issue now, nor should it be. The issue is one of possible malfeasance by our executive branch. That must not become an excuse for Congress to change course again and withhold aid already granted.

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The Nicaraguan resistance is as deserving as any group battling for freedom from tyranny in the world today. Allegations about ties to Somoza become emptier year by year. Many resistance fighters were in late childhood during the final Somoza years. Some are Sandinistas who defected as the revolution slid toward unalloyed dictatorship. Many others have religious, political, business, or labor interests which are intolerable to a regime that takes its guidance more from Castro than Sandino.

The contras' political leaders, Adolfo Calero, Alfonso Robelo, and Arturo Cruz, are respected men. Their UNO organization leads some 20,000 fighters. Of 153 senior officers in its largest contingent, the FDN, only 41 are former guardsmen. Nor does the tar of the ``Somocista'' brush adhere well to other resistance forces outside UNO. The Southern Opposition Bloc commanders are former Sandinista officials, now disillusioned.

The Nicaraguan resistance is now at war with what is easily the largest army in Central America, guided and supplied in the field by Cuban and Soviet experts, and enjoying that absolute political support which only the organizational tools of totalitarianism can supply. No one believes that the war has been clean, or that every contra field unit is free of blame for human rights abuses. But what must not be forgotten is that the resistance is a loose-knit, diverse force opposing the Sandinistas' institutionalized human rights abuse. The excesses and crimes of the resistance are not in accord with UNO policy, but against it. Those who commit them are the very same who have fled a polity they find worse than the battlefield. No state in the hemisphere, according to Ismael Reyes, past president of the Nicaraguan Red Cross, is more ``barbaric and sanguinary,'' or ``violates human rights in a manner more constant and permanent than the Sandinista regime.''

What is it that the resistance wants? Nothing more or less than what the US government, in concert with the other members of the Organization of American States, demanded of Somoza in 1979:

1.Immediate and definitive replacement of the regime in Nicaragua.

2.Installation in Nicaraguan territory of a truly democratic government guaranteeing peace, freedom, and justice. Its composition should include the principal representative groups that oppose the regime and reflect the free will of the people of Nicaragua.

3.Ensuring respect for the rights of all Nicaraguans without exception.

4.The holding of free elections as soon as possible.

The OAS required these of Anastasio Somoza; it should require them now of the Sandinista dictators. Somoza, at least, did not promise democracy to the Nicaraguans; the Sandinistas did.

What is required is some trace of the resolution the anticommunist Nicaraguan forces are showing on the battlefields, and that beleaguered opposition political, union, and religious leaders occasionally dare to reveal in Managua's meeting halls.

The tide may well yet turn in this struggle. The Sandinista regime's reputation has diminished steadily since 1979. Last year, Ecuador broke relations with the government because of its refusal to hold true elections. Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras have expressed their belief that their peace and freedom are not safe as long as the Sandinistas refuse to share power. And our ambassador to the Organization of American States, Richard McCormack, has just returned from the General Assembly session, where he found ``a widespread belief that if there were a pluralistic party system in Nicaragua that really worked, we would not have a Central American crisis.''

Not only have we cause for hope, we have a duty to act. In Public Law 99-83 in 1985, Congress recognized the role we had, with the OAS, in delegitimizing Somoza and seeing in the current government. That role gives us ``a special responsibility regarding the implementation of the commitments made by that [Sandinista] government in 1979.''

The contras did not cause the current crisis; the aid we wisely promised them should be delivered.

Jim Courter (R) of New Jersey is a fifth-term member of the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the House Select Committee on the Iranian Arms Controversy.

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