THE current collapse of the contras as a fighting force represents one of President Reagan's biggest failures, because his goal has always been to get the Sandinistas to ``cry uncle.'' It is now doubtful that the contras can survive for long, given the split in military ranks, shortage of provisions, and the deadlocked negotiations with the Sandinistas. Robert Owen, Lt. Col. Oliver North's bagman for the contras, may have been on target when he sent a memo to Colonel North in 1986 giving him a rather dismal assessment of the contra leadership. The memo, addressed to BG (North's code name for ``Blood and Guts''), said ``they [contra leaders] are not first rate people; in fact they are liars and greed and power motivated. They are not the people to build a new Nicaragua.''
Later in the memo he told North how little the contra leadership cared for the people fighting for the cause: ``This war has become a business to many of them; there is still a belief that the Marines are going to have to invade, so let's get set so we will automatically be the ones put into power.''
President Kennedy inherited a contra brigade when he came to power in 1961 and foolishly agreed to put the 1,500 Cuban exiles on the beaches of Cuba where they could ``liberate'' the island from Fidel Castro's communism. The war for Cuban liberation lasted three days, and cost the United States dearly in its relations with Latin America. All told, 114 men of the 2506 Brigade died, including four Americans from the Alabama Air National Guard. In economic terms, the invasion cost the US about $100 million, half in ransom to get the 1,189 prisoners back from Cuba. Some of these same people - Felix Rodr'iguez and Luis Posada - will become part of the war against Nicaragua.
Shortly after the 1961 fiasco, President Kennedy asked his special counsel, Theodore C. Sorensen, ``How could I have been so stupid to let them go ahead?''
The contra war against the Sandinistas has dragged on now for more than seven years, with economic and political costs that far exceed the damage from Bay of Pigs I. Close to 15,000 have died in the last seven years, with at least twice that figure wounded. By 1985, 250,000 people had been displaced by the war, while the number of orphans surpassed 7,000 that year. There are no figures on the numbers of Americans killed in the contra war, but the true figures would probably reach between 75 and 100.
The US-sponsored war against Nicaragua has cost the US over $10 billion when you add up aid to the contras, the militarization of Honduras and El Salvador, and the number of American jobs lost from the trade embargo against Nicaragua. Since 1982, the Sandinistas have been forced to spend at least 50 percent of the national budget on defense, thus curtailing expenditures on agriculture, health, and education. According to Sandinista estimates, US economic aggression has cost them $516 million, coupled with a $300 million price tag for the blockade of bilateral aid and multilateral assistance.
As the prospects dim for a contra victory, either on the battlefield or the conference table, the same feeling of betrayal by the US is being heard throughout the region. Shortly before his expulsion to Miami, contra dissident Walter Calder'on L'opez told the Washington Post, ``We have a feeling that we're being sent to another Bay of Pigs,'' but this time ``there are more pigs,'' and this one comes after ``eight years of war.'' Peter Wyden was correct when he concluded his book, ``Bay of Pigs,'' with the statement that ``it could happen again.''
Both Bay of Pigs I and II were designed as cheap alternatives to sending thousands of American fighting men to Central America or the Caribbean. According to the late William Casey, then director of central intelligence, ``It is much easier and much less expensive to support an insurgency than it is for us ... to resist one.''
The political costs of these two endeavors have brought considerable damage to the Latin American policy of the US. We are just beginning to pay the price of a failed policy in Nicaragua, as evidenced by the increase in Central American nationalism and anti-Americanism, a confused and fumbling presidency, a loss of American credibility abroad, and a serious breakdown of public trust in the presidency and the government.
Unfortunately, nothing will change until the US alters its deeply held conviction that it has the right and duty to impose our will on smaller nations in Central America. Perhaps we can learn from these foreign policy mistakes, lest we stumble into Bay of Pigs III.
David W. Dent is a co-editor of the ``Handbook of Latin American Studies'' and professor of political science at Towson State University in Baltimore.