JUST minutes after George Bush declared victory in the presidential election last November, thousands of Nicaraguan troops camped on the border here celebrated with euphoric gunfire and an all-night victory bash. ``Once we heard the news, we sent a message to all the troops,'' recalls top contra commander Oscar Sobalvarro Garc'ia, alias Comandante Rub'en. ``We all started celebrating and shouting, `Long live Bush, long live the United States.'''
Commander in chief Enrique Berm'udez even assured his jubilant contra forces that they would soon be receiving a new shipment of military aid from his friends in the Bush administration.
But less than a year later those high expectations have melted into resignation - even anger - at US unwillingness to continue financing the war against the leftist Sandinista government.
The ire is not only aimed at the US Congress, which undercut the contras in February 1988, when it narrowly defeated the last bill proposing additional military funding. A peace accord signed the following month in Sapo'a, Nicaragua, sparked the exodus of more than 10,000 contras to the base camps here, leaving less than 4,000 inside Nicaragua.
The contras's current indignation is also directed at the State Department and President Bush himself for failing to vigorously defend their interests before a regional summit meeting in early August. At the reunion in Tela, Honduras, five Central American presidents agreed to dismantle and relocate the contra forces by Dec. 7.
``The State Department wants us to disappear,'' says Marcos Navarro Carrasco, a top contra commander known as Dimas. ``But they will pay a political price for supporting a guerrilla army for so many years and so many lives - and then abandoning us.'' As if to punctuate his thought, he adds: ``The US government is at a humiliating moment in its history.''
But the contras themselves are stuck in a humbling situation.
Marking time here because of the lack of US military aid, they are now receiving visits from an international commission established by the Tela accord to supervise their demobilization and departure from Honduran soil. The commission, created jointly by the United Nations and the Organization of American States, is also overseeing the relocation of 50,000 contra family members currently in Honduran refugee camps.
The leadership of the National Resistance, as the contras call themselves, insists that its forces won't budge until the Sandinistas establish a proven democracy and reasonable security for their return to civilian life. Even commission members, after their first visit to the camps last week, acknowledged that a resolution may not be possible until after the Nicaraguan elections next February.
Meanwhile, as contra leaders fight to keep the camps intact until the elections, the 12,000-strong army (bloated by more than 1,000 new members) trains for a war that seems permanently on hold. The main task for contras returning to Nicaragua now is to spread the word about elections in which they have little faith (see story Page 3). Surprisingly, the troops staying in Honduras manage to stay upbeat, well-disciplined, and physically fit.
At the Salvador P'erez Regional Command, a warren of plastic-covered huts nestled into a burned-out hillside, troops wake up at 4 a.m. for running and calisthenics. Afterward, one 55-man company remains on the hard-packed volleyball court for marching drills until, at 6 a.m. sharp, the whole command stands at attention for a cacophonous rendition of the Nicaraguan national anthem.
Off to the side, several peasant soldiers gather in the open-air literacy classroom, where the reminders of US influence are even more palpable than the troops' M-79 grenade launchers and M-16 rifles. The letter ``W,'' for example, stands not for Wiwili, the home town of many contra fighters, but for Washington. The drawing next to the ``W'' is complete with the Washington monument backed by a carefully drawn White House.
But such deference is turning into defiance.
One wounded 22-year-old soldier named Prayo, sitting under a towering ceiba tree, rejects US efforts to prepare combatants for civilian life. The US Agency for International Development (AID), which administers the $49.75 US assistance program, ``wanted to put us in blue jeans and shirts so we would start thinking like civilians,'' he says. ``But that's not our attitude. What about all the blood our fellow fighters left in Nicaragua? We can't just leave it there, leave the war.''
But AID is only intensifying its civilian training program.
Since August, when the Tela accord called for the contras's departure, AID has been busy constructing new training facilities for courses in everything from typing, carpentry, and shoemaking, to cattle raising, chicken farming, and other rural trades. Commander Rub'en says the agency, while suspending its course in computers, still plans to give classes in English.
For contra troops, the courses offer sensible groundwork for an uncertain future. But for contra leaders intent on continuing the war, the AID program seems to prepare them for only one thing: their demise as a fighting force.
``AID definitely wants to wash its hands of us,'' says Miguel Angel Soza, alias Comandante Emiliano, the contra army's inspector general. ``AID is looking for a formula under which we can disarm. But they know our attitude now: Their food and instruction will not be exchanged for our weapons.''
The contras want to postpone their demobilization and to extend the US humanitarian-aid program past its November deadline - until after the February elections. But they no longer trust the US government. Despite the fact that the US now deals directly with the field commanders instead of the political directorate, the contra commanders seem tired of US ambivalence.
``The US policy with the resistance has failed,'' Rub'en says. ``They created a directorate, an assembly, and exiled political parties. We never agreed to any of that .... We've been a little battle horse, mounted by everybody for their own particular interests. The whole world has used us.''