ENRIQUE BERM'UDEZ is a prickly ally in the Reagan administration's efforts to get House backing for a critical vote on contra aid next month. He has played a crucial role in scuttling peace talks with the Sandinistas while creating the false impression that only more United States aid to his forces will get the Sandinistas to give in. But for years the administration has struggled to keep this conservative, hard-line, antidemocratic contra military leader out of the political limelight, for fear of destroying the image of ``democratic resistance'' it tries to sell to Congress. Now Mr. Berm'udez has emerged openly as a top contra political leader and has been lobbying members of the US Congress for the new aid package the administration is pushing.
Berm'udez was a colonel in the National Guard of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. When the Central Intelligence Agency and the Argentine military first created the contra force in 1980, he was chosen to head it. He and the former guardsmen in the high command have long held the reins of contra power, but they have been tainted by their sordid pasts, by their documented brutality in the field, and by continued charges of corruption. Indeed, four major attempts (in 1981, '83, '84 and '88) by mid-level officers to oust Berm'udez all failed.
In the April 1988 incident, 15 of the contras' 28 regional commanders demanded Berm'udez's removal, complaining that he was corrupt, ineffectual, and ``dictatorial'' - ``the Noriega of the contras....'' On May 12, the main dissidents were arrested and ``deported'' by Honduran officials. ``You know why we expelled them?'' one of the Hondurans said. ``Because they'' - he gestured to the CIA officers - ``told us to.''
Berm'udez and his cronies, however, were never the men to advertise the image of ``democrats'' and ``freedom fighters'' the administration sought to convey. So for years the administration worked hard to create a political front more acceptable to Congress.
Edgar Chamorro, a member of the first political front group, created in 1981, explained after resigning: ``They did not want us to function as a directorate as much as they wanted us to give the image of a directorate and to be visible.''
When political leaders emerged who attempted to act against Berm'udez and the CIA, they were eventually eased out. The best known was the darling of congressional moderates, Arturo Cruz. After quitting the contra directorate in 1987, he admitted that he spent the time in bitter confrontation with a clique led by Colonel Berm'udez. Mr. Cruz criticized the administration for allowing the contras to be controlled by this ilk.
Early this June, Berm'udez again demonstrated his power to block more moderate elements of the political leadership. At that time Alfredo C'esar, a political moderate, had emerged into prominence in the political directorate and was leading the contra negotiating team to the peace talks in Managua. He expressed willingness to negotiate seriously and opened back-channel talks.
He worked out a deal with the Sandinistas whereby they would loosen their control of the Army, police, and neighborhood committees and the contras would return and run in free and fair elections. The Sandinistas also agreed that these and other political concessions would be carried out and verified before the contras were required to put down their arms.
When the agreement became public, the Berm'udez faction balked, abandoned Mr. C'esar, and torpedoed the talks by inserting a whole list of impossible demands, giving the government only two hours to accept them, and then scornfully spurning the Sandinistas' offer to continue negotiations. A contra leader admitted to Newsday: ``We broke off the ... talks. They were strangling us. ... So long as we were talking, we had no chance for revival of military aid. Now we may.''
Berm'udez's position was understandable. Unlike some of the contra political leadership that might hope for a role in Nicaraguan politics if the war wound down, a political settlement would be the end of the line for him.
The Berm'udez monkey wrench sent a clear message to the Sandinistas that contra hard-liners had gained the upper hand and would not negotiate seriously - a message underlined on June 20 when Berm'udez maneuvered his way onto the contra political directorate, further consolidating the power of the most intransigent and reactionary contras.
The Sandinistas rightly assume that Berm'udez's actions reinforce the interests of the hard-liners in the CIA and State Department (like Elliott Abrams) who want to sandbag the talks, then pin the blame on the Sandinistas. The administration accused the Sandinistas of ``intransigence,'' began a drive for new contra aid, and twice sent Secretary of State George Shultz to the region to try to rally support against the Nicaraguan government. Soon after the contras walked out, the cease-fire violations began to mount, creating the image in Nicaragua that the contras could not be trusted to keep the cease-fire and that they were planning more major military actions.
During the week of July 10, the Sandinistas reacted. They had been willing to risk political openings despite serious, war-induced economic problems, because diplomacy held out a promise of ending the conflict. But the mounting campaign against the peace process spurred them to break up a demonstration by opposition groups favoring the contras, to close the opposition press temporarily, to arrest opposition leaders, and to expel the US ambassador for meddling with these groups.
These setbacks to civil liberties fueled the fires of those favoring contra aid. Although the actions were in large part a reaction to hard-line contra and State Department policies, the administration cynically portrayed them as proof that more aid was needed to get the Sandinistas to negotiate seriously.
The House should reject this distorted reasoning when aid again comes up for a vote next month. Berm'udez's rise to prominence should crystallize what the contras and their State Department backers stand for: corruption, abuse of power, brutality in the name of democracy defined as anticommunism, and an unrealistic preference for military solutions.
Kenneth E. Sharpe, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College, recently returned from Nicaragua and Honduras.