Secord testimony stings contras. Internal disarray also forces rebel group to restructure
To Nicaraguan contra leaders and supporters, the congressional hearings on the Iran-contra connection are further tarnishing their mottled image and affirming some long-held mutual suspicions. At the same, however, the contra movement has taken an important step in Miami toward unifying its factions and guerrilla forces in a new organization at a week-long meeting.
The most damaging testimony by Richard Secord at the hearings was that the contras' strongest supporter and closest ally in the administration, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, suspected that contras were squandering funds and possibly lining their own pockets. Says one highly placed contra: ``You can see what contempt even North had for us.''
Many contra leaders, especially erstwhile UNO directors Arturo Cruz Sr. and Alfonso Robelo, feel more like the victims of the Iran-contra scheme than the beneficiaries. Retired Air Force General Secord's testimony confirms their suspicions, they say, that there was a second level of decisionmaking and a second budget that only the third UNO director, Adolfo Calero, was privy to.
Secord said $3.5 million of the profits from the Iran arms sale was diverted to the contras, an amount augmented by a little more than $2.1 million in private donations. He also described an all-night strategy session with former director Calero and leaders of FDN, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, which is the main contra fighting force, over the Nicaraguan southern front.
Mr. Cruz, who resigned in frustration from UNO earlier this year, says he can attest that there were no irregularities in the UNO budget. But, he adds, ``it's obvious that there were two budgets. I find that to be irregular.''
Cruz asserts also that he and Mr. Robelo should have been included at the session on the southern front. ``Clearly that shows there was a compartmentalization,'' he says.
Under the new organization, to be called the Nicaraguan Resistance, the broad political spectrum covered by the seven directors and their complete control over contra money and military, contra leaders say, should keep this from happening again.
The crux of the contras' new face, so far, is the merging of the major umbrella organization, United Nicaraguan Opposition, with the more social democratic Southern Opposition Bloc (BOS). All the major Atlantic-coast resistance leaders are also in Miami negotiating to join the new group.
BOS is a small group that claims 2,000 armed troops, although outside estimates run to a fraction of that. BOS cooperation, however, is taken by many Nicaraguans as a signal of the integrity and independence of the new organization.
The expanded directorate, however, is almost certain to include Mr. Calero, who helped to frustrate the efforts of Cruz and Robelo to establish civilian political control over contra forces. Robelo will not run for the directorate, he says, largely because of his frustration over battling Calero and his allies.
All three UNO directors during the Iran arms trading period - Calero, Cruz, and Robelo - claim that the funds they received through North were identified as private contributions from unidentified sources.
``It is clear,'' Robelo says, ``that we were not to blame, but were the victims of the operation.''
Cruz and Robelo both confirm the testimony of Secord, that they received monthly payments of $5,000 and $10,000 each through North.
Robelo, however, says that the $10,000 he received was split between his political party and that of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, and that it was cabled directly to a Costa Rican company controlled by five directors of his party so that it was never held by any individual.
Cruz received $5,000 a month for personal living expenses, he says. Neither Cruz nor Robelo receives any salary or stipend from UNO, they say. Nicaraguan exiles outside the UNO organization, especially conservatives, have long been suspicious of how contras spent money from American sources.
``I think there has been a lot of money that has been really slushed around,'' says Roberto Vassalli of a Nicaraguan business association. ``A lot of people have been living very lavishly off this thing.''
Others don't trust Mario Calero, Adolfo's brother, who was charged with purchasing supplies for FDN.
Secord says that North scolded Adolfo Calero over the accountability and possible misuse of funds. Calero denies it. ``The tragedy,'' says Arturo Cruz Jr., ``is that anyone listening to Secord's testimony will never want to deal secretly with the US again,'' for fear of public exposure and embarrassment.
Staff writer Dennis Volman contributed to this report.