With battle further away, Nicaraguans near border can reestablish normal life

In this small village in the rugged northern mountains, Mayor Javier Burahona is proud of Sandinista troops who cross the border into Honduras to chase the Nicaraguan contra rebels. It is only logical, he says. ``If we want to survive, I do not see any other alternative,'' adds the mayor, a farm owner and longtime Sandinista supporter. ``Two years ago, the contras were all around here and you could hear combat almost every day. Now the situation is much improved. The war is far away and we can project the revolution into the countryside.''

While a recent Sandinista incursion into Honduras has been cited by the United States as an act of aggression, some Nicaraguans say it is just the opposite - a response to what they see as aggression against Nicaragua by the contras.

From the Sandinista view, it is a policy that not only carries moral authority but also brings political, military, and economic benefits. The policy is also intended to score with moderates in the Honduran government and convince the US Congress that the contras are a sour investment. To some political analysts here, these benefits outweigh the risk of a military confrontation with Honduras that could lead to US troops invading Nicaragua.

``It [the strategy] looks good from their [Sandinista] standpoint,'' says one Western diplomat whose government is not friendly with the Sandinistas; ``it [the policy] is smart, well-executed, and has had the desired effect.''

The benefits of the Sandinista strategy are seen in Wiwili, a town of 5,000 located some 15 miles from the border where the recent clashes took place. Officials and residents of Wiwili visited before the fighting gave insights into why they believe the Sandinista incursions are not evidence of stupid mistakes or wanton aggressiveness, but part of a comprehensive strategy.

When Mayor Burahona speaks of ``survival'' he means it literally. The leading health problem for children is caused by a lack of running water. Residents say two children died last month from water-related diseases. Restito Montoya, the mother of six, says she has to walk two hours to get water from the nearest well.

Three years ago, Wiwili received financing from a private West German group to bring running water from a spring six miles away. The project was delayed because the Sandinista Army felt it could not protect the workers or the finished product from contra attacks, Burahona said. But that changed early this year when the Sandinistas changed their strategy and began massing troops on the border with the intent of pushing the contras into Honduras. Now the project is in full swing and is scheduled to be completed in February.

Burahona also said the Sandinistas have been able to establish local government juntas this year in several smaller communities surrounding Wiwili. Before, he said, few people wanted to be associated with the revolution for fear of being killed by the rebels.

Army control of this area could be the result of a variety of factors, including the temporary suspension of US military aid to the rebels in 1984 and the Sandinista relocation of civilians away from the border in '85.

But the Sandinistas did not take real control of the area until the Army made its first major incursion into Honduras last March. Since then, Western diplomats say, the Sandinistas have maintained fixed artillery positions near the main rebel camps in Las Vegas Salient, an area of Honduras that juts into Nicaragua. The Sandinistas' presence has forced many contras to drop their fight in Nicaragua and return to Honduras to take up defensive positions. It has also allowed the Sandinistas to impede a wide rebel infiltration of Nicaragua.

Economically, it has enabled the government to harvest coffee and food in areas where two years ago few dared enter. Coffee, grown mostly in the north, accounts for more than half of Nicaragua's export earnings. Burahona says he expects to double his local tax base in 1987 because of the extra coffee. The government plans to use the money to build a park, basketball court, and a motel.

The Sandinistas justify the incursions by arguing that Honduras has lost its sovereignty over the salient by allowing the contras to set up camp there. In their view, the fighting takes place in a fluid ``border area'' that changes boundaries depending on where the contras are. Such a rationale, although legally questionable, allows the Sandinistas to deny that they invaded.

The Sandinista strategy is designed to cause and then exploit political problems in Honduras. While Hondurans have no love for the Sandinistas, the clashes have emboldened Honduran opposition politicians to pressure their government to solve the problem by evicting the rebels instead of fighting the Sandinistas.

``We want to force the Hondurans to look for a solution to the contra problem,'' said 1st Lt. Daniel Jiron, the Sandinista military commander in Wiwili.

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