Nicaraguans opposed to the Sandinista regime have watched Lt. Col. Oliver North testify on Capitol Hill with a welcome wonder and some mixed emotions. ``Frankly,'' says Arturo Cruz, a former contra director, who resigned this spring from the United Nicaraguan Opposition, ``I think he's the best thing that has happened for the contra movement.''
Alvaro Jerez, a political party leader in the contra movement, has been astonished at what Colonel North hath wrought. He sat on a Miami beach with his family this weekend as an airplane towed the message: ``We love Ollie North, America.''
North has done what the Reagan administration has not been able to do in recent months, Mr. Jerez says, ``and that is to turn public opinion.''
After watching the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua consistently score public relations victories in the United States, notes Mr. Cruz, North's riveting testimony has turned the tables.
``This could be the first time the contra movement has had its day in court, so to speak, in this country,'' Cruz says.
Ironically, though, it was partly the strategy of North that favored the conservative faction of the contra movement, led by Adolfo Calero, and froze out the center-left leadership, such as Cruz and Jerez.
Mixed emotions? ``To tell you the truth, I have asked myself that many times in the past several weeks,'' says Jerez, a director of the contra political party, the Southern Opposition Bloc. He prefers to win political support for democracy inside and outside Nicaragua, as opposed to North's strictly military approach.
Yet, he says: ``I think we should be grateful. He believed he was doing right for my country. In my judgment, he was not right, but that's not demerits for Colonel North.''
North's earnestness has even changed some minds in the faction-ridden exile community. Francisco Cardenal, a founding member of the chief contra guerrilla army, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), who no longer believes in the contra cause, began with little respect for the enterprising colonel.
``When this hearing was to start, I was hoping he would be put in jail,'' he says, noting that North had supported a corrupt contra leadership and is supporting a futile war costing Nicaraguan lives. Mr. Cardenal now believes the US should grasp North's goals with both hands and send US troops to overthrow the Cuban- and Soviet-backed Sandinistas.
North's performance convinced him, he says, that North was at least working from honest conviction. ``His goal was to get rid of the communists.''
Contra leaders are waiting until former national-security adviser John Poindexter testifies before forming a hard political analysis.
Some feel that North has successfully put Congress on the defensive over supporting the contras.
Polls over the weekend show some mild improvement in public perceptions of the contra movement. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released Monday showed contra aid support at 40 percent, up from 32 percent in May.
Americans, Cruz says, ``are a very calm, unemotional, reasoning society'' likely to separate their personal response to North from the issues he raises.
``I think this has come as a kind of shock to the people to see what the administration has to go through to make policy,'' says Jerez.
If North is frustrated over the obstacles in a system of checks and balances, says Cruz, his own frustration is not having that kind of democratic system in Nicaragua. ``I understand the reason he is frustrated, and ironically I am frustrated in reverse.''
Says Cardenal: ``Mr. North has been a great help to America, a great help to the President, but unfortunately also a great help to the leadership of the contras,'' which Cardenal sees as corrupt and without prospect.
The contras have been a highly factionalized opposition to the Sandinistas. Although the major groups united in a broad alliance this spring, the Nicaraguan exile community is still fraught with distrust. North channeled arms sale funds directly to Mr. Calero and the FDN, undercutting the other contra political leaders, including Cruz.