In early August of last year, the Nicaraguan contra rebels were at their peak. Flush with $100 million in aid appropriated by the United States Congress the previous September; CIA flights resupplying their troops inside Nicaragua; and their new Red-eye antiaircraft missiles destroying Sandinista attack helicopters, the rebels had seized the military initiative for the first time in six years of war.
But, as has often been the case with the contras, an event outside of Nicaragua changed their fortunes.
On Aug. 7, five Central American Presidents signed a regional peace accord, authored by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, and known here as Esquipulas II. In retrospect, that document was the beginning of what the great majority of diplomats and observers here now consider to be the end for the contras.
For in the year since the pact was signed, US congressional opinion apparently has shifted against military aid, the contras have fallen into disarray, and, diplomats say, they may have missed their opportunity for the best terms they can expect in talks with the Sandinistas.
The negotiations collapsed June 9 when the contras made major, last-minute demands. This ended a series of negotiations that followed the signing of a temporary cease-fire on March 23.
And there are other difficulties:
In Nicaragua, the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 rebel troops still loyal to contra military chief Enrique Berm'udez are not receiving arms supplies sufficient to sustain them against a government offensive, should Managua launch one. Nor are they receiving new supplies of boots or uniforms. But they are being constantly shadowed by Sandinista troops, diplomats in Honduras and contras in northern Nicaragua say.
In Honduras, some 6,000 troops of the Northern Command under Colonel Berm'udez's control have been sitting along the border since March. Their morale is waning while they subsist on handouts from the US Agency for International Development. Their Honduran hosts have become increasingly uncooperative in the face of what Honduran officials see as an inevitable US retreat from the rebels.
The hard-forged unity between rival rebel groups in Honduras and Costa Rica disintegrated when Costa Rican-based commanders quit the coalition known as the Nicaraguan Resistance, taking 2,700 troops with them. They were protesting Berm'udez's July 16 appointment to the rebels' political directorate. They are now seeking separate peace talks with Managua.
Costa Rican-based contra political groups are also grumbling about Berm'udez. They are threatening to leave the political front in support of the commanders.
Perhaps worst of all for the rebels, the prospects of Congress approving new military aid appear to remain distant, despite a Sandinista crackdown last month, which included the expulsion of the US Ambassador and seven other US diplomats.
Even if Congress approved more military aid, unless there was a full-scale revival of massive US involvement, additional military aid would be little more than a bargaining chip in talks aimed at ending the war, say Honduran officials and foreign diplomats in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
This is so, these officials explained recently, because the rebels are wholly dependent on the CIA for supplies. Unlike traditional insurgencies, the rebels have never developed independent logistic capabilities.
Thus more lethal aid would have to be on the scale of US involvement in 1986-87. Too small an amount of aid would leave a large portion of the rebels stuck in Honduras, while their political leaders push for a pact to end the war.
``They will never again have an opportunity like they did June 9 to affect the situation here,'' one European diplomat says. ``They could have gained so much'' in limiting Sandinista hegemony had they pushed on toward an agreement in the now-moribund talks.
Having very possibly returned the negotiations to Square 1, agrees a South American ambassador here, ``the contras will return'' to the talks ``more debilitated than ever.
The Reagan era will be that much closer to an end ... and the Sandinistas will not be as desperate'' for an accord as they were earlier this month, he says. ``They may find the Sandinistas taking a much harder line then.''
Contra officials in Miami and Costa Rica say they don't expect a new round of talks until September, at the earliest.
``There is still pressure on'' Managua ``to sign an accord, but time now is really working more against the contras'' than the Sandinistas, the ambassador said, referring to the widespread belief here that the contras will sail over the horizon with the Reagan era.
US Secretary of State George Shultz's failure Aug. 1 to win endorsement from the four regional Presidents condemning Nicaragua was significant, diplomats here agree.
The rejected communiqu'e contained belligerent language and also called on the Sandinistas to accept four key contra demands in future talks. This may leave Washington with less leverage during any future talks between the contras and Managua.
But it does leave the Central Americans in a position to influence the talks, says contra official Carlos Hutardo.
``By telling the ``Yankees to butt out [in refusing to sign Shultz's communiqu'e], the Presidents may have left themselves in a position to take the initiative in getting a settlement'' without being seen as carrying Washington's water, he says.
It may be recorded, the South American ambassador says, that the initiative of the five Central American Presidents a year ago Sunday began construction of the coffin in which the contra war will one day be buried.
``This time last year I wrote a report saying that if the Sandinistas could survive to the end of this year, they would outlive Reagan,'' he said.