Chronic tensions among the Nicaraguan contra rebels have burst to the surface, prompting threats of resignation from one of the contras' top leaders and casting the movement's future in doubt. Arturo Jos'e Cruz, widely seen as leader of the more moderate faction within the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), has ``pretty well decided'' to resign from his post on the political organization's three-man directorate, a source close to the contras said.
Mr. Cruz's departure would be a major blow to the Reagan administration's contra policy, which has long aimed to foster unity and the image of political moderation in rebel ranks. Even if the affair blows over, it is likely to provide more ammunition to the contras' congressional critics, as evidence that key leadership problems remain.
Cruz has often complained that civilians within UNO, who favor a political challenge to the Nicaraguan government, have been subordinated to the emphasis placed on military action by right-wingers in UNO's largest guerrilla group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN).
Reports that Cruz's patience had expired coincided with the announcement Tuesday that the commander of rebel troops on the southern front, Fernando Chamorro Rappacioli, had broken with UNO. Mr. Chamorro was apparently disgusted that his men had seen none of the $100 million in contra aid that the US Congress approved last year.
That move has left the contras' southern front, already in disarray, virtually nonexistent.
``Unity is a hybrid, and hybrids don't work,'' said Alfonso Robelo, one of the three UNO directors, commenting on the new crisis gripping the rebel organization.
The contras, Mr. Robelo added at a Tuesday press conference in San Jos'e, Costa Rica, are made up of ``those who always fought against [Anastasio] Somoza [Debayle], and those who felt comfortable'' under the former Nicaraguan dictator's rule. This was seen as a jab at FDN military commander Col. Enrique Berm'udez and FDN leader Adolfo Calero, the most conservative UNO director.
Cruz, who served in the Sandinista government for two years after the 1979 revolution, has often clashed with his FDN colleagues since UNO was formed in mid-1985, say friends and political allies. Those differences broke out into open squabbling last May. Cruz was persuaded not to resign only by promises of reform in UNO. The reforms were to give civilian politicians greater control over UNO.
With the contras then under heavy fire from critics accusing them of corruption, drug running, and human rights abuses, Cruz and Robelo pressed for commitments that they would be able to effect changes that would broaden the rebels' appeal to Nicaraguans and to the US Congress. Those commitments hinged, say participants in last May's meetings, on civilian control over the contras' military forces and unification of the FDN with other guerrilla groups. Such moves would have eroded the FDN's autonomy within UNO, Cruz loyalists hoped.
But the reforms have not been implemented, contra officials hostile to the FDN claim. The most recent evidence of this, said two such officials, came when Cruz last month paid one of his rare visits to Honduras, where the bulk of the FDN troops are based. There, he was denied access to the guerrilla camps for days, the officials complained. Cruz was deliberately not informed that one of the FDN's most prominent field commanders, ``El Tigrillo,'' had only days before been sentenced by a rebel court-martial to a year's imprisonment for killing a fellow rebel.
In the light of such events, many congressmen and contra officials doubt significant reforms are possible.
``You can't cut any reform deals because [the chief, Calero] is still there and the US wants him there,'' says one Senate aide critical of the US's contra policy.
Mr. Calero's support in the US administration seems strongest in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), according to several contra officials. They say Cruz's main allies are in the State Department.
``Calero thinks he is so well plugged in with the CIA that he doesn't have to worry about political unity with the others,'' says one congressional aide who has followed contra affairs closely.
Cruz's strength, on the other hand, lies in his moderate political background and his acceptability to Congress, which is to vote later this year on Mr. Reagan's request for $105 million in new contra aid.
Should Cruz leave UNO, and Robelo follow suit, the FDN would be stripped of its political cover and left alone to lobby for congressional funds.
But there is a feeling among Cruz's allies that the rebel leader has acted over-hastily in signaling his intention to resign, one of his associates said in a telephone interview. A group of his friends and advisers within UNO were understood to be meeting with him yesterday in Miami to discuss his next move.
The dominant mood among that group, said the Cruz ally, is that ``it would be better to make more efforts one more time to achieve the reforms he has been pushing for.'' Cruz ``feels hemmed in,'' the source added. ``But the feeling is that he should perhaps be more flexible, more political, and not change everything with one flourish of the pen.''