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Nicaragua Policy At Delicate Stage For White House

Bush must decide how to help opposition candidate and continue supporting contras

By Lucia MouatStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 1989



BOSTON

THE Bush administration is under pressure to make some tough decisions regarding the two top goals of its Nicaraguan policy. Before the Feb. 25 election, the administration wants to do as much as it can to strengthen the democratic process inside Nicaragua. Specifically, it aims to help opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeat Sandinista President Daniel Ortega Saavedra. But in doing so the administration must stay within the limits of the law and avoid any appearance of trying to buy the election.

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The administration also needs to walk a careful line in its continuing support for the 12,000 contras and their families inside Honduras.

The military phase of the struggle is widely regarded as over. Repatriation is voluntary. Yet without the active encouragement of the US and determined efforts to ensure their safe new start, few contras may go home. Many will want to come the United States. The call to demobilize and resettle the contras by Dec. 8 was first issued in August by the five Central American presidents in Tela, Honduras.

Last week at the United Nations, Guatemalan President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo underscored the plea again and urged the US to use contra aid to speed the resettlement.

By its own admission the Bush administration policy toward Nicaragua is less ideologically driven than that of the previous administration. Many conservatives accuse the Bush administration of selling out on past promises.

Yet the new pragmatic policy is low key and has general bipartisan support. Democrats are also unlikely to halt continued humanitarian aid to the contras in November when they have a legal option to do so.

The current controversy over aid to Mrs. Chamorro and the democratic process centers on the amount and specifics of the spending. The administration recently withdrew a bid to channel such funds directly through the National Endowment for Democracy. Members of Congress warned that the move would violate the agency's charter.

Secretary of State James Baker III's latest proposal would send the money through legal channels but asks for $9 million, triple the amount of its earlier bid. The proposal also includes vague spending plans that have been questioned by both Republicans and Democrats.

Mark Falcoff, a Latin America specialist with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), says the $9 million request is ``excessive'' and could make it look as if the US were bent on buying the election.

``I think the administration to some degree is playing games with this number to try to pacify conservative critics who feel it has washed its hands of the whole thing,'' says Mr. Falcoff, conceding that he agrees with that view. ``This is a policy driven 100 percent by domestic politics. The elections are Baker's way out.''

Discussions on the Hill are now under way which may trim the $9 million and fill in specifics.

``The proposal will certainly be greatly refined and defined,'' says a spokesman for Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on Latin America. The administration wants fast action because voter registration in Nicaragua began Oct. 1.

Mr. Ortega has an extra advantage as an incumbent; he can rely on all of the state's machinery to help him politically. Almost one-half of the potential voters - members of the Army, government employees, and the like - are considered firmly in his camp.