Trouble ahead for contra aid

FOR a growing list of sound reasons, the Reagan administration's plan to pump continuing aid to Nicaragua's contras is in big trouble. Congress is unlikely to give the White House any more green lights on funding. The result could be positive: a welcome revival of interest in a negotiated end to the conflict. Why Congress's growing caution?

Much of it relates to the swirl of still unanswered questions rising from the Iran arms sale affair, in which profits were apparently diverted to the contras. The precise role of the executive branch in everything from the secret flights that supplied weapons to the contras to the soliciting of funds from other nations and private sources has yet to be spelled out. Questions of legality, propriety, and defiance of the intent of Congress, which had banned military aid and barred CIA involvement in contra matters for much of the last two years, must be addressed.

The contra forces continue to be dogged by charges of corruption, disunity, and human rights abuse. Based largely in southern Honduras, the rebels have so far demonstrated little ability to garner any popular support within Nicaragua. Much of the $27 million in United States humanitarian aid given the contras in 1985 is still unaccounted for, and contra chiefs insist they know nothing about the vast sums presumably diverted to them from Iran arms sales.

Nicaragua's neighbors are increasingly eager to keep contra bases and operations off their soil. Costa Rica has shut down all contra operations. Honduras says it wants the contras out by April.

Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans have long wanted to end the flow of US aid to Nicaragua's resistance fighters. Their caution stems from no particular idealism about Managua. The Sandinistas' repressive moves against the press, religious figures, and political parties, as well as its broken promises for democracy, have been well publicized. Rather, many Americans have real qualms about the wisdom and legality of trying to force another nation's government to change in what has essentially become a proxy war. There is no appetite for involvement in another Vietnam. The capture in Nicaragua of such Americans as Eugene Hasenfus, pardoned last week, and Sam Hall, soon to be tried, only underscores the danger of such involvement despite the best efforts of Congress to keep US personnel far from Nicaraguan borders.

The next formal checkpoint on contra aid is mid-February. Congress will weigh what progress rebel military forces have made in bringing their operation under civilian control before approving the final $40 million chunk of the recent $100 million aid package approved in October.

In the spring the legislators will face the larger decision of whether a whole new round of funding is in order. Letting the funds run dry, the wisest move, would necessarily force a shift from the military to the diplomatic route in the search for a solution.

Once again the Contadora draft peace treaty would become the focus of attention. For several months it has been on the back burner, largely because of US concerns about verification and Managua's demand that US aid to the contras end before military curbs are accepted.

However, foreign ministers of the four Latin nations that drafted the treaty and the four others in the Contadora support group met in Rio de Janeiro last week to try to find new ways to get the process moving again. As a group, they decided that in January, with the secretaries-general of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, they will visit the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica in an effort to revive Contadora negotiations.

The foreign ministers, who will meet again in April in Argentina, sharply criticized continued US aid to the contras at their recent meeting, calling it a major obstacle to peace. Capitol Hill should pick up on that cue and, making every effort to bring the White House along with it, pursue the diplomatic route to peace and stability in the region.

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