Washington — The contras' top military figure admits recent meetings between the contra directorate and key Washington legislators were tough. At this point, the House of Representatives is still not inclined to renew lethal aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, despite the Sandinista crackdown. A majority of House members still favor diplomatic rather than military pressure on the leftist Sandinista government, say congressional aides close to the issue.
And according to participants in the meetings on Capitol Hill last week, the more Col. Enrique Berm'udez and his colleagues lobbied for military support with little emphasis on continued negotiation, the less inclined ``swing voters'' - those House moderates most likely to change their position - were to swing the contras' way.
But Colonel Berm'udez sees no alternative to pushing for military aid, citing an ``obligation'' to his fighters and the need to keep morale up.
``We are an armed movement,'' asserted the director of contra military activities in an interview with the Monitor. ``Political opposition and civic opposition will never get the democracy we want in Nicaragua. The only way to get it is through armed struggle.... We cannot come here to ask: `Give us humanitarian aid to feed our soldiers.' We are not a refugee organization.''
Does this mean the contras are not interested in going back to the negotiating table?
``Well, if we can get it through the military pressure and reach an agreement by negotiation, we'd be delighted to do that,'' he says. ``We have proposed to give up our weapons if you [the Sandinistas] agree on this: freedom of expression, stop the persecution of the church, separation of the Army and party, a judicial system independent of the government. All the democratic principles that exist in democratic countries.''
``There is nothing extraordinary here,'' Berm'udez continues, ``nothing the Sandinistas can't accomplish.... But that decision remains with the Sandinistas.... There is no climate to negotiate at this time.''
Berm'udez outlined four conditions for the renewal of peace talks that collapsed June 9: release of antigovernment demonstrators arrested at the recent protest in Nandaime, Nicaragua; a response from the cease-fire verification commission on recent alleged violations by the Sandinistas; agreement to hold the next round of talks outside Nicaragua; Sandinista compliance with the agreement reached with the contras at Sapo'a (i.e., guarantee free speech, release contra prisoners, and allow contras to be supplied with ``nonlethal'' aid in cease-fire zones inside Nicaragua).
Only a week ago, the contras' chief negotiator, Alfredo C'esar, was quoted as saying he hoped talks would resume this month. But by the time five of the seven contra directors arrived in Washington, later last week, such talk had evaporated and Ce'sar was not with the group.
When it was suggested to Berm'udez that C'esar's presence here might have helped moderate the group's image, he responded: ``He is the chief negotiator with the Sandinistas, not with Congress.''
[All seven contra directors have been meeting in Miami yesterday and today to discuss in detail the assignment of responsibilities among them.]
Other highlights from the Berm'udez interview:
If Congress were to put renewed military aid in reserve, would you still have an incentive to negotiate?
The message and the signals to the Sandinistas are very important. The Sandinistas know better than us what is the situation in Washington.... [Paul] Reichler is an American lawyer who is working with them; he knows very well how the Congress works.... They [the Sandinistas] know it will be very hard for us to get military aid, so they are prolonging the negotiations to enter into Congress's recess, the electoral campaign, the new government.
We are willing to reach democracy through negotiations. We have to give the incentive to the Sandinistas to negotiate democracy. They have no incentive at this time because they perceive that we have not the same capacity that we had in December 1987. We want democracy through negotiations or through the military. We will prefer a civilized way, but that's up to the Sandinistas.
What will your fighters do if they get no more US military aid?
A percentage of them will continue the fight. A percentage of them will abandon, will come to exile to the United States. Probably thousands of people will leave Nicaragua. Some of them [the fighters] will become bands, assaulting and doing any violations of the law in the neighboring countries, not only in Nicaragua.
How many will keep fighting?
At least 50 percent.
Where will their supplies come from?
From the Sandinistas. They [the contras] will capture them. We also have hidden caches in Nicaragua.... They will use their supplies selectively in very well-planned actions and ambushes.
Will you try to revive your private aid network?
After the Iran-contra affair, probably many people will be reluctant to give contributions - even governments.
How do you see your own future if US aid stops?
I have a responsibility to the people who have believed in my leadership.... I will stay with them to see what solutions we can have.
In a recent interview, you were quoted detailing how the US government failed to handle the contra war properly. Would you care to elaborate on that?
You want an example? You have an international development agency [the US Agency for International Development] supporting a war effort, a military organization. (Berm'udez laughs.)
Are you praying the Sandinistas will make a mistake in the hopes that Congress will renew military aid after all?
It doesn't make any difference. They have made the biggest mistake, and nothing happens. They have violated human rights; they don't comply with the Esquipulas agreement.