Outlook for contra reform is poor. Problems go beyond funding to the very nature of the movement
Washington — Whether or not the contras get any further congressional funding this fall, their chances of successfully mobilizing anti-Sandinista sentiment in Nicaragua and the exile community are not good. The contras remain trapped both by the circumstances of their founding and by the vested interests created by these circumstances within the movement itself and the United States government. This is the view of US government officials, ranking congressional staff aides, some contra officials, and leading liberal intellectuals sympathetic to the contra cause.
If the new contra directorate has been widely criticized as inadequate, these observers say, it is not because there are no anti-Sandinistas of higher caliber who could potentially support and lead the movement. It is rather that the history and present reality of the contras have been such that the most dynamic elements of Nicaraguan society both within the country and in exile have kept their distance from the movement.
Furthermore, these analysts say, even if the contras could burst the chains of the created vested interests, it is probably too late.
The moment for contra reform, a reform deep enough to mobilize Nicaraguan anti-Sandinista sentiment, deep enough to pose a serious military challenge to the Sandinistas, has probably passed. This is the opinion of the main architects of the reform effort - such as Bruce Cameron, a prominent liberal lobbyist close to the more moderate contra leaders - who have played a key role over the last few years in getting contra aid passed in Congress.
``Contra reform is no longer possible,'' Mr. Cameron says, ``because the American moment has passed. The moment in which the US could have gotten behind contra reform was in 1986. Now, no matter how good the new directorate would have been, Congress will not give it a chance.'' Even if the contras get more US funds in the fall, he says, they will not be enough to make a real difference in the military struggle.
He adds, ``The constituency which supported contra reform in Congress in 1986 is now against the whole contra policy and insists on direct negotiations with the Sandinistas.
``The only strong constituency for contra reform within the administration was the State Department - especially [Assistant Secretary of State] Elliott Abrams - and it has been considerably weakened by `Irangate.' Furthermore, the State Department never had the field operatives who could work with the contras, as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - which opposed reforms - did have. The Reagan administration as a whole, especially the White House, has consistently shown that its support for reform has never been more than lip service.''
A top Republican Senate aide long sympathetic to the contra said, ``The other Central American countries are concerned about bringing some peace to the area in order to attract vital economic investments and maintain their own political stability. They're not going to sit around waiting a few years for the contras to get their act together. They are going to cut their own deal with the Sandinistas.''
Central America will increasingly rush to make peace with Nicaragua, said another top Senate aide, when it realizes that probable increasing US economic difficulties will sharply cut the American aid it will be receiving.
One moderate contra official, still with the organization, says the Reagan administration's basic mistake was to believe that a contra organization had to be created as early as 1981. Thus, they rushed to use exiled Somocista officers as the core of the new military movement.
Instead, the contra official says, the US should have waited for anti-Sandinista feeling to mount and an authentic resistance movement to emerge.
When the Reagan administration came to power, it was determined to ``clean up'' Central America, while possessing very little knowledge of the region, according to Lionel Gomez, a Salvadorean Christian Democrat who closely collaborated with contra leader Eden Pastora in his early resistance attempts. It had contempt for the Carter officials who had worked in the area and would also not listen to advice from the Latins.
Mr. Gomez says the administration proceeded with increasing ignorance and arrogance and got involved with people who were a disaster. By the time the Americans began to realize what had happened, it was too late. ``Too many investments,'' he says, ``had been made of time and money, and large groups within the US bureaucracy, especially the CIA and the White House, had vested interests in protecting their `clients.'''
When the US perceived the need for civilian leadership of the contras, they added another group that some analysts see as equally damaging to the movement. ``The civilian leadership which the US chose for its operation were people who fit in with US values,'' says Arturo Cruz Jr., who severed all official connections with the armed resistance after his father recently resigned as one of the three members of the previous contra directorate. ``Who are the heroes of US society, and the Reagan administration in particular? The managers, the big businessmen, the `can do' types.''
Therefore, according to Mr. Cruz and others, the civilian leadership was a mere ``clique'' of businessmen and old-line politicians who were incapable of articulating a coherent political message to either Nicaraguans or American society.
The high Republican Senate aide said, ``The Nicaraguan resistance was formed at the behest of others, and was under the financial and political control of a foreign power.
``You didn't have a national resistance seeking outside help, you had an externally created opposition, without a political program, seeking a role inside the country.
``Thus, in order to be successful, the contras required foreign military intervention. ... Although the Reagan administration knew at heart that a US military intervention was politically unacceptable to the American people,'' the aide said, ``it never made this clear to the contras.''
Thus, analysts say, the contras spent their time squabbling and trying to see whose leader would come out on top when the US entered Managua.
One leading US intellectual sympathetic to the contra cause says, ``I don't think that either the contras or the US were ever serious about mobilizing Nicaraguan society. That would have gotten them into a sticky area. In order to do what the Nicaraguan people wanted, it would not be enough just to throw out the Sandinistas. The contras would have had to figure out a social program that would appeal to people, and then put it into some kind of context. But the contras never had a unifying political vision of society, such as Leninism.
``The idea of mobilizing peasants into articulating a political program, or creating a grass-roots structure that allows views to come up from below, is the last thing that Calero or the US is interested in,'' the analyst goes on. ``Neither do they want to deal with reform issues, because if you make promises of reform you create expectations you have to live up to. And these people were never interested in real change.
``Another thing that neither the US nor the contras understood is that Nicaraguans can complain and moan about the Sandinista regime, and yet be reluctant to move against it because of the social services they are provided with. Thus, the Sandinistas have been able to keep the opposition at the level of mere grumbling. How does one oppose such a regime? I don't think the contras have any idea.''