`Just say no' to the contras

NANCY REAGAN, in another context, has pointed the way for Congress to respond to the President's request for more aid for the contras: Just say no. The record is replete with evidence of the administration's bad faith on this matter. It has consistently ignored legal restrictions on the use of such aid as Congress has approved. Given an inch, the administration has taken a mile.

The President is so desperate that he will agree to any euphemisms, to any restrictions, to get it. And then he (or his agents, with or without his knowledge) will use it as they see fit. This has been the consistent record for seven years, and members of Congress who keep looking for an acceptable middle ground are simply deluding themselves. Worse, they are participating, wittingly or not, in a scam to delude the public.

The Sandinista government of Nicaragua is the Reagan administration's obsession, and the President will not rest until the government is overthrown. Administration policy statements are usually sugarcoated to conceal that objective. The policy says that the Sandinistas must institute reforms and move toward a democratic, pluralistic society. But no matter what the Sandinistas do, it's never enough.

The President himself once declared that the Sandinistas would have to cry ``uncle'' - in other words, cave in to the United States. It was a peculiarly infelicitous image for Uncle Sam to project to Latin America, but it provided valuable insight into the President's real policy, which is to sabotage the Central American peace process while paying lip service to it.

The alternative to contra aid, in the President's view, is the establishment of what he has called ``a Soviet base camp'' in Nicaragua. From this base camp, the rest of Central America would be threatened, and then Mexico and then possibly even Harlingen, Texas, as the President once put it.

If the Soviets really have this on the agenda, they are proceeding in a strange way to carry it out. Moscow has left the Sandinistas largely to shift for themselves. The Soviet Union supplies petroleum, but grudgingly and in minimal quantities. Nicaragua is almost literally out of gas, and of almost everything else, too. Inflation is running at perhaps 1,000 percent a year.

Some of these difficulties are no doubt due to the activities of the contras. But if the Sandinistas are so important to the USSR, one would think the USSR would do a little more to help them. The truth probably is that Moscow wishes the Sandinistas well, but not at the price of a major Soviet commitment.

Cuba provides an instructive example. Fidel Castro upset President Kennedy almost as much as the Sandinistas have upset President Reagan. The Soviets have put a great deal of money into Cuba, but Fidel Castro is no longer taken seriously as a threat to US security.

It may well be that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra has only reluctantly made such concessions as he has made so far in the peace process. The Reagan administration says the concessions have come only under pressure from the contras. One could just as well argue that they have come under pressure from the other Central American Presidents. In any event, one should not be so naive as to believe that Mr. Ortega suddenly aims to make Nicaragua a Central American version of Denmark.

Neither among the Sandinistas nor the contras are we dealing with 20th-century versions of George Washington and Tom Paine. The problem would be intractable even without heavy-handed US intervention.

Mr. Ortega decreed freedom of assembly. Then when some of the opposition tried to assemble, some Sandinistas beat them up. The whole thing might have been a cynical exercise by Ortega, but it might also suggest that Ortega is not completely in charge in Nicaragua. He is, after all, only the first among equals in a group of comandantes.

It is also reasonable to suppose that the contras are not monolithic, either, and that not all of them are totally controlled by their leaders.

When left to their own devices, Latin Americans are eminently pragmatic, as evidenced by the Central American peace process. They ought to be left to those devices now. Someday there will be a role for the US in Nicaragua - and in Honduras, too, in helping to clean up the mess the contras have made in that country with our money. But that day is not yet. Anything we do now is more likely to make things worse.

Just say no.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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