THE Nicaraguan government's cancellation of its cease-fire last week threatens to derail an upcoming congressional review of aid to the contras. Last March the Democratic leadership in Congress agreed to allow $50 million in nonlethal aid to contra forces under certain conditions. If the aid was not furthering the peace process, they reserved the right to terminate or rechannel funds in November. Unfortunately, the termination of the truce has hardened positions regarding the fate of this aid package. Supporters of contra aid contend that the contras are an insurance policy for the elections: The threat of their renewed action is what is keeping the Sandinistas honest. That argument, however, ignores certain facts. The contras have not threatened the Sandinistas militarily for years, although they have caused much human tragedy. There is no support in the region or inside Nicaragua for their renewal. And the Sandinistas have their own, far more crucial reasons for running relatively free and fair elections: Only by so doing will they gain the internal legitimacy and the international recognition that will allow them to obtain the development aid they so desperately need.
But the contras do pose two important threats. They threaten the very democratization process their backers claim to support. And they threaten the long-term peace and stability that all the Central American presidents want to encourage.
Contra threats to the democratization process are many. They interfere in the countryside with voter registration. According to most international observers, including former Attorney General Elliot Richardson, registration has been proceeding fairly. Government guarantees have been fulfilled. However, bands of contras are going door to door in rural areas threatening peasants if they don't register for the opposition. Such intimidation makes fair campaigning impossible and gives the Sandinistas a justification for restricting the electoral process.
Contra attacks keep up a security threat that prevents the demilitarization that would help encourage the current electoral process and future democratization. The cancellation of the cease-fire is a sad byproduct. In October the contras ambushed and killed 19 Army reservists on their way to register to vote. Contrary to contra leaders in Miami who accuse the Sandinistas of staging such events, on-site interviews with opposition leaders verify contra responsibility for this incident.
If the Sandinistas win, as most polls currently predict, the contras' inevitable conversion into roving bands of outlaws will force the government to keep a military much too large for the country's development needs. Too much money will have to be spent on the military budget for defense and not enough will be available for health, education, and employment. Moreover, national security threats, whether real or not, could be used to justify repression.
Contra threats to the regional peace process and the response by both Central American and US leaders increase the significance of the upcoming decision before Congress. In August the Central American presidents agreed to full demobilization of the contras by the United Nations, essentially for two reasons. On the positive side, they recognized the actions taken by Nicaragua toward democratization in releasing large numbers of political prisoners and in granting major concessions to the opposition. On the negative side, they feared the dangerous consequences of a well-armed outlaw force marauding through their lands - a force that Honduran coffee producers and peasants have already suffered.
For the sake of regional stability, the US should support the Central American presidents' demobilization effort and not use misleading justifications to continue contra aid. Saying that we will not interfere and that the demobilization process is voluntary, while our money is giving the contras an incentive to stay armed, is deceitful and immoral. Our continued aid is interference and severely undercuts the regional peace process - a process that is in our own self-interest.
Congress made a deal with the administration: Nonlethal aid was contingent upon the contras' not using it for military purposes. But there is clear evidence from church groups, human rights organizations, and even the opposition that the contras still engage in military actions.
As the Nov. 30 decision draws closer, some members of Congress will say that these contras were not using US dollars. But if it was not US money, it was other dollars that our aid freed up. Or they will say that these contras were not under the command and control of the forces we support in Honduras. If the contras were not acting under orders, this is even more reason for us actively to support and fund their demobilization.
Such an argument underscores the real and present danger that, after the elections, these groups will break up into desperate angry bands of armed men that no one will control. This makes it all the more urgent that we act now to support UN efforts at demobilization. Congress should rechannel all remaining funds in the contra account into disarming and peacefully resettling the contra forces and their families through the offices of the UN.
By so doing, we would align ourselves with our southern allies and take a pragmatic step toward resolving the conflicts that threaten Central America.