It's one of those ironies: The man who has headed the Nicaraguan contras' fighting force for the last seven years has never done battle inside Nicaragua. Col. Enrique Berm'udez Varlea started his military career in 1952 when he joined the National Guard of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, upon graduation from the Nicaraguan Military Academy. He trained in Brazil. In 1975, he went to Washington to attend the Inter-American Defense College. After graduation, Colonel Berm'udez became Somoza's defense attach'e in Washington and remained in the post until the Sandinista revolution toppled Somoza's regime on July 19, 1979.
Berm'udez played only a passing role in the revolution. In early 1979, then-Panamanian military ruler Gen. Omar Torrijos suggested Berm'udez be made head of Somoza's National Guard to salvage it as an institution in the face of its military collapse.
Berm'udez declined. And so did his fortunes. By early 1980, the former colonel and diplomat had sold his home in the Washington suburbs and was driving a truck delivering magazines. It was, however, a temporary setback.
A handful of anti-Sandinista exiles had begun plotting a counterrevolution. They sought a military leader personally untainted by the bloody excesses for which the National Guard had become known. Berm'udez fit the bill: a career officer with command training who had never actually led a command, and with a general reputation for honesty.
``In the space of a few years,'' notes Roy Gutman in ``Banana Diplomacy,'' a book on Reagan administration policy in Nicaragua, ``Berm'udez would go from delivering `Time,' `Newsweek,' and `People' magazines to appearing in them.''
By the summer of 1981, the Reagan administration had committed itself to the military option, and Berm'udez was re-born as ``Commander 3-80,'' military leader of the nascent Nicaraguan Democratic Force. He began commanding the contra's largest military groupings in 1981. But the only combat Berm'udez has ever seen was in the Dominican Republic in 1965 - as deputy-commander of the Nicaraguan contingent of the US-led invasion.
While he has not set foot inside Nicaragua since the revolution, Berm'udez enjoys the unqualified support of most of the contras' battle-hardened field commanders. Although his leadership has been challanged at least twice by rebellious commanders, he has come out on top.
The most serious rebellion was in May, when three regional commanders charged him with corruption, favoritism, and authoritarianism. Four other field commanders joined the mutiny. All were deported from Honduras and are in exile in Miami.
Berm'udez has long enjoyed the full backing of the US Central Intelligence Agency as well as of top Honduran military leaders.
To the Nicaraguan exile community living in Miami, he is a virtually unassailable figure, as seen by the wide margin (44 to 2) with which he was elected to the civilian directorate Monday.
But from some of his colleagues in the long-term political leadership, Berm'udez gets mixed reviews. Most, however, have resigned or been purged.