In a move aimed at salvaging the Nicaraguan contras' deteriorating position on Capitol Hill, a controversial resistance leader resigned yesterday from the rebels' governing triumvirate. Analysts say the resignation of Adolfo Calero was designed to signal increased influence for more moderate elements within the contra movement.
The moderates are led by Arturo Cruz, also a triumvirate member. His high standing in Congress is considered key to sustaining American support for the faltering contra war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
But by retaining control of the largest of the contra armies, the 12,000-to-16,000-man Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), say these sourcs, Mr. Calero's resignation will fall short of satisfying demands by congressional moderates for major political reforms in the contra movement.
``The issue is not what letterhead Calero's name is on,'' says one congressional source. ``The issue is where the power is. Since the FDN is where the real power is, Calero's resignation loses value even as a facade.''
Diplomatic observers say that Calero's resignation was encouraged by the Reagan administration as a means of averting a politically costly showdown with Mr. Cruz.
Last month, Cruz - who has viewed the conflict against the Sandinistas in political as well as military terms - threatened to resign from the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) over differences with the more conservative Calero. State Department officials, fearing that Cruz's departure could be the last straw for a contra-aid program already weakened by the Iran-contra affair, last week stepped up pressure on Calero to resign.
Cruz has now reportedly withdrawn his intention to resign from the UNO directorate. But observers say difficulties between the two leaders may not be so easily resolved because Calero, as head of the FDN, will still be able to play a major role in directing the rebel movement.
At the urging of the United States, various anti-Sandinista factions coalesced to form UNO in 1985. The umbrella group is the recipient of all US aid to the Nicaraguan resistance.
The various contra armies were joined in UNO by political exiles like Cruz and Alfonso Robelo, who were attracted to the movement after fraudulent national elections in 1984 closed off opportunities for internal opposition in Nicaragua.
The inclusion of politial moderates helped temper the reactionary image of the contras, some of whom were officers in the National Guard under former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. In particular, Cruz - a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the US and official at the International Monetary Fund who is seasoned in the ways of Washington - endowed the contra movement with the aura of legitimacy needed to win the support of reluctant congressional moderates.
``He was the pretty face needed to sell the military package to Congress,'' says one private analyst familiar with the congressional politics of contra aid.
But from the beginning, UNO has been torn by political differences and personal animosities.
``These guys have never been able to get together without a pie-throwing contest,'' says a congressional source commenting on the state of relations between Calero and the two moderate UNO leaders.
Despite an agreement on internal reforms reached by the directorate last May, Cruz has complained that real power remained in the hands of the military leaders of the rebel movement, Calero and Enrique Bermudez, military commander of the FDN. Meanwhile, Cruz has been increasingly frustrated UNO's inability to gain a reputation inside Nicaragua as a socially progressive alternative to the Sandinistas.
``Having been used to gain legitimacy, he feels his input has been ignored,'' says one source close to Cruz, who asked not to be identified. ``Essentially what they wanted was his name, not his progressive principles.''
Impatient with political infighting and with the slow pace of reforms inside the contra movement, State Department officials in particular have pressed for leadership changes. According to news reports, Calero was told last week by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams that his departure from UNO would be ``in the best interests of the movement at this time.''
Calero said his group has nominated Pedro Joaqu'in Chamorro Barrios, son of the slain editor of the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, to take the FDN spot as a UNO director.