Using new political and military strategies, the Nicaraguan government has gained a slight foothold in the war against the antigovernment guerrillas. But diplomats and military analysts say that the ruling Sandinistas are not likely to meet their goal of dealing a decisive blow to the ``contra'' rebels this year.
``I can't see either the contras or the Sandinistas having a military victory,'' said a Western diplomat. ``What I see is a protracted guerrilla war.''
Military leaders and diplomats in the capital and the northern war zones say the six-month-old military offensive has reduced the number of contra forces. The offensive in the lush coffee-growing regions of Jinotega and the other northern provinces, where the rebels concentrated last year, is considered the most aggressive thus far.
Sources from the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), a Honduras-based contra organization, say the offensive has disrupted their supply routes in northern provinces.
On the southern border, the Sandinistas have deployed more counterinsurgency forces to drive out the Costa Rican-based rebels. This month they bombed a key contra camp in the region.
The offensive uses three kinds of forces. Special counterinsurgency troops are deployed in small bands to chase the rebels. Regular forces are then sent to hold territory the contras have abandoned, and local reserve forces are stationed at infiltration points where the contras bring in supplies and troops and take out recruits.
``It's not going to be like before, where we go in, they go out, we go out, and they come back in again,'' Vice-Defense Minister Joaquin Cuadra said in an interview. ``From now on, we're going to stay.''
A Western diplomat said the Sandinistas have improved their high military command and their ability to use artillery and special counterinsurgency forces. ``Their learning curve is beginning to pay off.''
Congress voted last week overwhelmingly in favor of supplying the contras with ``nonlethal'' aid. Some foreigner observers expect the contras, who have had resupply and organization problems, to make a comeback.
The military effort has been coupled with a political offensive to encourage contra forces to return to civilian life in Nicaragua and deny the rebels various types of peasant aid.
In the Jinotega province town of Pantasma, Sandi nista representatives have made house calls delivering amnesty papers to 160 families believed to have relatives fighting with contra forces. So far, 60 contras, who say they were forcibly recruited, have responded. They are returning home with a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. To ease their way back into the fold, Sandinista representatives have held public ceremonies to celebrate their homecoming.
``It has had a great effect,'' said Antonio Zamorra, political secretary for the Sandinista front in Pantasma.
``A lot of people were staying with the contras because they were afraid of coming back.''
Hoping to cut back on peasant aid to the contras, the Sandinistas have emptied villages in contra-infiltrated areas throughout several northern provinces.
``When the contras left, they had sympathizers and a supply and information system,'' said Commandant Cuadra. ``If they come back, they'll find empty villages and Sandinista forces.''
Resettlement camps for evacuees appear to be an effort to control suspected collaborators but also to win them back for the revolution.
In a Pantasma relocation camp, the presence of armed Sandinista soldiers suggested that the location was at least part prison. But the 240 residents were supplied with food and had access to a health center and school teachers for their children. Seven better-than-average houses have been constructed and camp directors said 93 more would be built.
While the military and political campaign has had some success, the Sandinistas, like any government fighting a guerrilla war, are at a disadvantage. To overcome the contras, the army would have to control the borders, nearly all of the desolate, mountainous regions stretching along the borders and extending through much of northern, eastern, and southern Nicaragua.
Maintaining an aggressive military campaign would drain even more of Nicaragua's limited material and economic resources.
Sandinista soldiers in the northern zones last week were already reporting a re-infiltration of contra forces. They said that combat had picked up in May after a lull of almost three months.