Nicaraguan rebel leaders have decided against requesting lethal aid from Congress, for now. In their meeting last Thursday in Guatemala with Secretary of State George Shultz, ``there was no talk about military aid, only humanitarian,'' said contra leader Alfredo C'esar, speaking by telephone from Miami.
This position, which Mr. C'esar said is the official view of the contra directorate, would boost the cause of administration moderates who want to change course in US policy toward Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas and favor diplomacy over military pressure.
If the moderates can go to President Reagan and say that the ``freedom fighters'' themselves don't want the administration to request lethal aid, it makes the moderates' argument easier to sell, said an official involved with the contras.
Reports from Mr. Shultz's two-day visit to Central America last week indicate that the secretary is prepared to put his weight behind the diplomatic process.
In every country he visited, he made sharply critical remarks about the leftist Sandinistas, part of a strategy to isolate Nicaragua diplomatically from the region. He plans to return to the region Aug. 1 for a meeting with the foreign ministers of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.
``Some people in the administration and in the [contra] directorate think we should ask for lethal aid even though we don't have enough votes in order to, as they say, put `historical responsibility' where it belongs,'' said Mr. C'esar.
``They'' referred to hard-liners who are willing to risk a vote against military aid in the democratically controlled Congress so that the Democrats can be blamed for the ``loss'' of Nicaragua - a point that could be used in the US presidential campaign.
``But others, including the secretary and I, think we need a positive vote to strengthen the resistance in the negotiating process,'' continued C'esar, the least conservative of the contra directors. A request for only humanitarian aid would pass both houses easily.
C'esar added that according to contra military leader Enrique Berm'udez, the contra field commanders support a renewal of the contra-Sandinista peace negotiations that collapsed June 9.
Another contra director, Adolfo Calero, had told reporters last week that the administration was prepared to submit a package to the Senate that would also include military aid to be placed in escrow.
US officials denied such a plan. C'esar said he had not spoken to Mr. Calero since the reports appeared and did not know why Calero had said the White House backed a military aid package.
Calero seemed to be trying to preempt the administration's apparent new thrust for diplomacy.
Reports about Calero's remarks were said to anger the secretary of state.
Back in Washington, Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas has also been reportedly maneuvering to get an early vote in the Senate on contra military aid before the Democratic national convention.
The Reagan administration is expected to decide this week on what exactly its aid request will look like, and then to make the request.
According to C'esar, it is up to Congress and the administration to decide how much to request. But he said the contra directorate made clear to Shultz certain minimum requirements:
That aid be appropriated through next March. This would keep the contras viable as an option for the next US president.
That the package require an aid delivery system that is ``reliable and independent from [the influence of] the Sandinistas.'' This became a sticky issue in the last aid package.
That the package must provide for nonmilitary, e.g., political, training for the contras, many of whom will presumably be idle in their camps as long as a tenuous cease-fire holds.
One expected provision of a future peace accord would be an opportunity for any contra fighter to be reintegrated into Nicaraguan society.