On the eve of the United States presidential elections, the Nicaraguan contra rebels are still divided on what steps to take next. The division between hard-liners and moderates is intensified by the rebels' concern for their fate once their patron, President Reagan, leaves the White House.
The contra directorate met here last week to discuss a new strategy for negotiating with Nicaragua's leftist government as well as the moderates' demands for more power-sharing within the contra movement.
The session failed to yield progress on either front. The moderates, however, have vowed to come up with a detailed new negotiating position in the next three weeks to present to the directorate and to a meeting of the Central American presidents planned for later this month. An endorsement from the Presidents would boost the prospects for resuming diplomatic talks.
With almost no hope for renewed US military aid, the moderates, led by Alfredo C'esar, are anxious to resume peace talks with the Sandinistas. And, they say, they are prepared to break away from the contra leadership if the hard-liners refuse to negotiate.
The hard-liners, led by Enrique Berm'udez, still view military pressure as the key to winning concessions from the Sandinistas. In an interview, Colonel Berm'udez refused to consider any form of pressure other than military might. ``We are an armed movement.... If one wants to engage in a civic struggle, they [the moderates] should go back and join the [internal] opposition.''
But if the contras' military option is a ``spent cartridge,'' as a State Department official said recently, the rebels would appear to have few bargaining chips for getting sweeping political changes from the Sandinistas.
Adjusting the contras' ``bottom line,'' therefore, is one goal of the moderates. ``For us, the bottom line is that we are willing to take a risk and go back, provided the conditions exist to fairly compete for political power,'' explained one of the moderate contra officials. ``Berm'udez, right now, still thinks he can demand the Sandinistas' surrender'' in negotiations.
C'esar's Costa Rica-based moderates last month formed the Coalition of the Democratic Center in an attempt to secure some leverage over hard-liners. The CCD, acting as a bloc in the Nicaraguan Resistance, developed demands for restructuring the rebel leadership and initiated the plan for new negotiating tactics.
``Hopefully the directorate will accept the proposal and we can renew negotiations as one group,'' an official in the CCD says. But if the hard-liners who control the directorate fail to endorse a new plan, the CCD would try to outflank them by seeking bi-partisan support for its own plan in the US Congress. It would then seek talks with the Sandinistas, the official says.
``In politics you have to use leverage, and [the CCD] will be leverage'' on contra intransigents under the next US administration. With backing from the Congress, the CCD thinks it could isolate Berm'udez, and C'esar would become the point man for talks.
A formal split between the CCD and the rest of the contras ``might happen'' if hard-liners refuse new talks, C'esar said in an interview here.
For their part, hard-liners deny they are unwilling to negotiate seriously. Berm'udez and conservative contra leader Adolfo Calero both expressed irritation with C'esar's latest maneuver, accusing him of ``selfishness'' and ``opportunism.''
``Who do they represent, these people?'' Berm'udez said. He and Mr. Calero claim C'esar's new five-party coalition represents only 14 seats in the 54-seat rebel assembly.
Berm'udez accuses the CCD of ``collaboration'' with the Sandinistas for suggesting they would accept anything short of the wide-ranging changes the contras demanded at the last round of talks on June 9. He also made clear he would not entertain any change in strategy until the next US administration clearly demonstrated it would not pursue a military option.