The two-day Christmas truce due to go into effect today offers Nicaragua only the briefest respite from the ravages of war. For Nicaraguans celebrating the holiday season, peace and goodwill remain distant hopes. The past few days offered more pointers to war than to peace. The contras launched their largest attack of the war, the United States Congress approved $8.1 million in new aid to the rebels, and cease-fire talks between Managua and the contras collapsed.
Those events, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra told reporters Tuesday, all carried the same message. ``The maneuver is very clear,'' he charged. ``The United States does not want a cease-fire.''
Cease-fire talks reached an ``impasse,'' according to Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo when the contra team refused to meet the two foreigners the Sandinistas had delegated to act as technical advisers. Contra negotiator Jaime Morales Carazo insisted that a Sandinista official also be present.
That stance, President Ortega said, ``mocked'' mediator Obando y Bravo, who suggested the creation of technical commissions as a way around the Sandinistas' refusal to meet with contra representatives.
Contra leader Ar'istides S'anchez had previously accepted the idea, aware that Managua planned to name foreigners to its team, Ortega said.
But in the Dominican Republic, where the cease-fire talks were due to take place, ``the representatives of the US government known as contras received orders not to meet,'' he charged.
``The intransigent attitude of the US government is clear, to boycott and sabotage the Cardinal's initiative,'' he added.
Ortega also saw Congress' decision to support the contras with new funds as a sign the war will not be over soon.
In voting the aid, Congress set the stage for a definitive vote on the rebels' future next February. One of the conditions for more funds will be a presidential finding that no cease-fire has been arranged in Nicaragua, and that the Sandinistas are to blame.
The contras thus seem to have little incentive to agree on a cease-fire. Their challenge, rather, is to ensure they are not blamed for continuing the war.
To win more aid, the contras will also need to convince Congress of their viability - a goal clearly in rebel minds as they attacked three remote mining towns in northeastern Nicaragua before dawn on Sunday.
Col. Enrique Berm'udez, a contra military commander, said as the assault began that one of its aims was ``to demonstrate our military capacity.''
As their troops withdrew on Tuesday, contra spokesmen claimed the raid was a success. The rebels said they had occupied Siuna, Rosita, and Bonanza, killing or wounding over 250 Sandinista troops, destroying airstrips and government Army barracks, capturing Sandinista weapons, and blowing up a fuel depot and a radar station.
Ortega denied rebels had occupied the three towns and said they had lost over 100 men at a cost of 24 Sandinista Army dead.
Though few independent eyewitness accounts of the fighting were available at press time, contra claims appear exaggerated. The Sandinista Army flew reporters to battle zones on Tuesday to inspect the results of the attacks.
``The contras didn't occupy Bonanza, Rosita, or Siuna,'' Ortega scoffed. ``What they occupy is Honduran territory and mansions in Miami.''
The President acknowledged, however, that some 1,500 contra troops had been involved in the operation. Though this is well below the rebels' claim of 7,000, it made the attack the largest single raid the rebel forces launched in their six-year war.
It came only two months after over 1,000 contras attacked several points along the strategic road from Managua towards the Atlantic coast.
``The most interesting thing about the attack this week was that the Sandinistas were taken by surprise again,'' says one Western military analyst. ``Now we'll have to see if the contras can launch another attack elsewhere in the country in the next few days.'' Contra spokesman Jan Bosco Matamoros warned on Monday that such an offensive might be forthcoming.
Paul Reichler, an American lawyer representing Managua in the talks, said he had given the Cardinal new Sandinista cease-fire proposals, and suggested a third round of negotiations from January 7th to 10th.