THE Bush administration is under pressure to make some tough decisions regarding the two top goals of its Nicaraguan policy. Before the Feb. 25 election, the administration wants to do as much as it can to strengthen the democratic process inside Nicaragua. Specifically, it aims to help opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeat Sandinista President Daniel Ortega Saavedra. But in doing so the administration must stay within the limits of the law and avoid any appearance of trying to buy the election.
The administration also needs to walk a careful line in its continuing support for the 12,000 contras and their families inside Honduras.
The military phase of the struggle is widely regarded as over. Repatriation is voluntary. Yet without the active encouragement of the US and determined efforts to ensure their safe new start, few contras may go home. Many will want to come the United States. The call to demobilize and resettle the contras by Dec. 8 was first issued in August by the five Central American presidents in Tela, Honduras.
Last week at the United Nations, Guatemalan President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo underscored the plea again and urged the US to use contra aid to speed the resettlement.
By its own admission the Bush administration policy toward Nicaragua is less ideologically driven than that of the previous administration. Many conservatives accuse the Bush administration of selling out on past promises.
Yet the new pragmatic policy is low key and has general bipartisan support. Democrats are also unlikely to halt continued humanitarian aid to the contras in November when they have a legal option to do so.
The current controversy over aid to Mrs. Chamorro and the democratic process centers on the amount and specifics of the spending. The administration recently withdrew a bid to channel such funds directly through the National Endowment for Democracy. Members of Congress warned that the move would violate the agency's charter.
Secretary of State James Baker III's latest proposal would send the money through legal channels but asks for $9 million, triple the amount of its earlier bid. The proposal also includes vague spending plans that have been questioned by both Republicans and Democrats.
Mark Falcoff, a Latin America specialist with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), says the $9 million request is ``excessive'' and could make it look as if the US were bent on buying the election.
``I think the administration to some degree is playing games with this number to try to pacify conservative critics who feel it has washed its hands of the whole thing,'' says Mr. Falcoff, conceding that he agrees with that view. ``This is a policy driven 100 percent by domestic politics. The elections are Baker's way out.''
Discussions on the Hill are now under way which may trim the $9 million and fill in specifics.
``The proposal will certainly be greatly refined and defined,'' says a spokesman for Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on Latin America. The administration wants fast action because voter registration in Nicaragua began Oct. 1.
Mr. Ortega has an extra advantage as an incumbent; he can rely on all of the state's machinery to help him politically. Almost one-half of the potential voters - members of the Army, government employees, and the like - are considered firmly in his camp.
Many thousands more, largely opposition supporters, live outside Nicaragua and may not vote unless they return.
Many outside observers - including Jimmy Carter, invited by the Sandinistas, and Elliot Richardson, for the United Nations - will help monitor the election.
Ortega knows that much-needed outside economic help depends on how fair the election appears.
``I think Ortega has no choice but to try to run it fairly,'' says Viron Vaky, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. ``It's not that the Sandinistas have become democratized. It's just that they're beginning to acknowledge reality, the same way the Bush administration understands you can't win a guerrilla war.''
The question now before the administration is whether or not it can afford to wait until after the election to come to grips with two important policy issues:
How Washington will deal with Nicaragua if Ortega should win and if election observers say the process was fair. Should the US normalize relations and help with reconstruction? Or should it follow a containment policy, continuing its trade embargo?
``I don't get any sense that such contingency thinking is going on in Washington,'' says Peter Hakim, staff director of the Inter-American Dialogue.
Improving incentives for the contras to return home. Contra leaders want to wait out the election in Honduras; they say that going home now might mean prison or death. Yet if Ortega wins, most contras are even less likely to go back.
Mr. Vaky, a former US ambassador to Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, suggests that the administration should have thrown its weight early on behind the Tela accord and the joint effort of the UN and the Organization of American States to disarm the contras and help them resettle.
Instead, he says, the US is ``standing on the sidelines, watching.'' Some of the humanitarian aid that is to be used to feed and clothe the contras through the elections could be used for agricultural loans and other return incentives, he says.
``The US should be thinking of ways to encourage voluntary repatriation,'' Mr. Hakim says. ``It shouldn't be all that difficult for people that have been working on this for eight years to come up with all kinds of incentives that would be helpful. Without them, the contras aren't going to leave.''
``Because of the right wing ... the administration has not yet admitted that the [old] contra policy is off and that perhaps we ought to start thinking about where these people ought to go,'' comments Falcoff of the AEI. ``That would be the honest thing to do. ... I suppose they're waiting until after the election to see if maybe these people will just go back to Nicaragua. ... But if that doesn't happen, the administration is going to have to bite the bullet and face the whole issue of bringing them all to the US.''
``This isn't just a mechanical question of how you demobilize the contras,'' one administration official says. ``It's contingent on certain conditions, including Sandinista behavior. A lot of people picked up arms because of that behavior. It's not up to the resistance to create the conditions for a safe return.''