The ongoing United States debate over aid to the contra rebels has flared once again, stoked by charges from a defector from the Nicaraguan military. Roger Miranda Bengoechea, formerly a major in the Sandinista Popular Army (SPA) and a key staff member in the Ministry of Defense, defected in October, bringing with him details of a secret plan for the Soviet Union to substantially increase its military aid to the leftist government of Nicaragua.
So sensitive are the charges, coming at a time when the US Congress is considering whether to extend American aid to the contras, that the Sandinista leadership has issued a series of conflicting claims in order to refute Major Miranda. Specifically, Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega Saavedra confirmed that his country has plans to increase its armed forces to 600,000 troops - much higher than any in other nation in the region. Lt. Gen. Colin Powell, President Reagan's national-security adviser, said Sunday that such a buildup would pose a ``direct threat'' to neighboring states.
That same day, however, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, brother of the defense minister, claimed that the plan was ``only a proposal'' from the military that had not been finalized.
In a meeting with reporters yesterday at the US State Department, however, Miranda stressed that ``there was a definite plan, a finalized plan.''
He said Defense Minister Ortega was to sign a pact with the Soviet Union during a visit to Moscow early next year. The pact would provide the necessary arms and materiel to put the buildup plan into practice, Miranda said.
Miranda brought with him a copy of the two-phase plan, called Diriangen, which would have substantially beefed up SPA starting next year, and lasting through 1995.
Miranda claimed the plan assumed that the withdrawal of US assistance, coupled with internal bickering among the contra leadership, would mean that the contras would wither away as a fighting force by the end of 1990. By that time, he said, the Soviets had pledged to provide more artillery, antitank weapons, antiaircraft weapons, and military equipment sufficient to field a new infantry brigade.
Beginning in 1991, Miranda said, the Soviets had agreed to help Nicaragua assemble ``one of the most powerful armies in Central America,'' with 500,000 troops under arms, a number of small warships in Nicaraguan harbors, self-propelled 122-millimeter artillery, and even a squadron of 12 MIG-21 fighters. The US has said repeatedly that it would not allow the Soviets to base MIG-21s in Nicaragua.
Mr. Powell said yesterday that the US would pursue ``rather quickly'' a suggestion by the Soviet Union at last week's summit to cut arms shipments to Nicaragua if the US cuts its help to the contras.
The immediate impact of Miranda's revelations was to revive the prospects for US aid to the contra rebels. Their support had waned on Capitol Hill in light of the continuing bickering within the ranks of the contra leadership, their unspectacular military record, and the revelations of investigation into the Iran-contra affair. House Speaker Jim Wright, who is promoting the Central American peace plan requiring a cutoff of US aid to the contras, said the timing of the revelations might affect aid deliberations. ``The Sandinistas have a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,'' he said.
Mr. Wright, through an aide, told Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann that Humberto Ortega's remarks were ``counterproductive.''
The White House has been pushing for up to $240 million in aid to the contras, but now plans to defer the aid request until next year. Administration officials were quick to point out that Miranda's charges validated their claim that Nicaragua is bent on destabilizing the region.
While Miranda did describe a military buildup that seems to go well beyond purely defensive needs, he said the Sandinistas were driven by fears of an ``inevitable'' US military invasion of their country.
Miranda said there was continuing distrust and disagreement between the Sandinistas and the Soviet and Cuban military advisers in their country. He said Moscow's earlier refusal to provide MIG-21 aircraft was taken by the Sandinistas as a sign of wavering commitment.