Contras Hit the Campaign Trail - but Under Cover

AFTER more than a year of restless waiting in the contra camps here, ``Vladimir'' and his 20 troops are finally returning to the mountains of Nicaragua. Bidding adios to envious contras staying behind, the red-headed commander adjusts his backpack and slings a rifle over his shoulder. Yet despite the air of expectation, Vladimir's troops are not going to fight the Sandinistas - not if they can help it. Their main mission is to support an electoral process which may end up further legitimizing the same Sandinista government they have tried to overthrow.

``Our infiltration into Nicaragua has nothing to do with combat,'' says Vladimir, noting that 18 months without US military aid has left them unable to carry out significant attacks. ``Our only goal is to maintain a presence in our fatherland and ... alert the people about the elections and who they can vote for.''

The presidential elections, scheduled for Feb. 25, have turned contra fighters into campaigners for opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Some 300 contras have gone back to Nicaragua since August, mainly for a period of political canvassing in regions too remote to receive either opposition politicians or news about candidates. The troops carry leaflets telling people to vote against the Sandinistas.

``We are not the army of the political opposition,'' explains Oscar Sobalvarro Garc'ia, a top contra commander. ``We just have to tell our supporters that in this moment we cannot win militarily and that they must participate in the political process.''

It's a confusing role for the contras, especially since they have little faith and no vote in the elections. But contra leaders explain to their troops that free and fair elections are what they have been fighting for all along.

``Even though we were not invited to the democratic dance, we're the ones who set up the chairs and prepared the ballroom,'' says Enrique Zelaya, a contra doctor. ``So we have to wait and see how they turn out.''

The contras envision two hopeful scenarios - both only remotely possible. One is that the opposition wins and dissolves the Sandinista Army. The other is that the Sandinistas commit a massive fraud that provokes the US Congress into approving military aid again.

Despite growing dissatisfaction with the Sandinistas, most analysts say that they will not need major fraud to win because of their core of militant supporters and access to state resources and organizations.

At a command post here, Comandante Dimas talks with about 60 troops fielding questions about the elections. One soldier asks: ``What happens if [Mrs. Chamorro] wins and she can't change the Sandinista Army?''

``That's a question that has troubled me, too,'' Dimas replies. ``For her to dissolve the Army would be like tickling the tender parts of a tiger.''

Laughter erupts, then subsides as the meaning sinks in. The hard-core contras, Dimas is saying, may have more waiting to do even if the opposition wins.

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