Eden Pastora has faced down a challenge to his leadership of a Nicaraguan rebel army, but he is unable to give all his troops the wherewithal to fight.
Most of Pastora's guerrillas are out of combat because they lack boots and bullets. Many are hungry and sick. The hard-pressed rebels hunker down in the remote backlands of southern Nicaragua, waiting for their chief to provide supplies and ammunition.
But Pastora, famed as the guerrilla leader "Commander Zero" during the Sandinista revolution, cannot seem to make ends meet. He is the commander of an admittedly impoverished, ineffective and endangered force.
For a while last year, it was not clear whether Pastora's troops were sticking with him. His Democratic Revolutionary Alliance, known as ARDE, had split in two. Alfonso Robelo, leader of the rival faction, said then that many guerrillas were abandoning Pastora and throwing in with him.
In a recent interview, however, Robelo acknowledged that Pastora has retained the allegiance of his entire army.
"I don't have any military forces," Robelo said.
Robelo and some other alliance political leaders broke with Pastora over the issue of whether to join forces with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, a larger guerrilla army that operates in northern Nicaragua. Robelo has pushed for uniting against Nicaragua's Marxist-led Sandinista government, but Pastora has balked.
Clearly, the quarrel has aggravated the alliance's difficulties in obtaining support from the U.S. government and other outside sources.
"We feel pressure, that if there is no unity, there is no aid," said Jose Davila, political coordinator of Pastora's faction of the alliance.
Davila said that Pastora commands 7,000 fighters but that only 2,500 of them have ammunition with which to fight the Sandinistas.
Fighters Now Farm
Most of the idle fighters have put their weapons down and are growing food for the guerrilla movement or are working in the political underground in Sandinista-controlled areas, Davila said in an interview.
He said that the guerrillas have received only a trickle of outside aid from private sources since May, 1984, and that the ARDE troops are in desperate need of ammunition, boots, uniforms, food and medicine.
"We are in danger of being extinguished," Davila said. "If substantial help doesn't come, the Sandinistas will crush us."
The CIA has given tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. Most of the support has gone to the Nicaraguan Democratic Force in the north.
Government spokesmen in Washington have said that the aid was meant not to overthrow the Sandinistas but to force them to change their ways. Pastora refuses to accept that goal; his goal, he insists, is to overthrow the "communists."
Davila, Pastora and other alliance leaders acknowledge that they received CIA aid indirectly until the beginning of 1984, when, they say, it stopped. Later, Congress cut off CIA aid to all Nicaraguan rebels, known as counterrevolutionaries or contras .
The alliance has always rejected the contra label. "We are not counterrevolutionaries," Davila said. "We are dissident revolutionaries."
Davila was interviewed in San Jose, where the alliance has its administrative headquarters. At the time, Pastora was in the United States seeking support. "I understand he is filling up the sack," Davila said hopefully.
Later, however, in Miami, Pastora expressed disappointment as he prepared to return to Nicaragua. "No one helps us--no one," he complained. "We are desperate."
It was early morning at the home of a Nicaraguan exile in Miami's southern suburbs. Pastora, 48, wore a leather jacket and sat on the edge of a mahogany rocking chair. The dense Pastora beard, which comes and goes, had been shaved off.
He had been in Washington, testing the atmosphere, and he said that Reagan Administration officials would not see him. "Their bosses have prohibited them from talking to me," he said.
CIA 'Blocked' Aid
Because he refused to pattern his goals on the Reagan Administration's, Pastora said, the CIA not only cut off U.S. funds for the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance a year ago but also has "blocked" aid from independent sources.
"I have been in a war immensely alone for 12 months," he said. "The dirty hand that is the CIA does not know how to deal with worthy men. They don't like to, they only want unworthy ones."
The alliance began its guerrilla war in May, 1983, with fewer than 400 soldiers. By the end of that year, it claimed to have 6,000, though independent estimates of troop strength were much lower. Pastora said that the organization was then receiving up to $600,000 a month in aid.
Of the $600,000, he said, about $300,000 went to the guerrilla campaign, and the rest was used by Robelo and the political arm of ARDE. "Parasites," Pastora hissed.
Now, he said, the guerrilla army is making do with about $100,000 a month, donations from private sources.
"It is $100,000 that I collect in Panama, Costa Rica, here in Miami, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Nicaragua," Pastora said.
Meanwhile, his guerrillas are suffering "hunger, sickness, calamities," he said.
Nevertheless, the alliance insists that it maintains control over large expanses of rural territory in southern Nicaragua and has been able to occupy the town of Atlanta since November despite repeated assaults by Sandinista forces.
Pastora said the assaults on his people have involved the use of four Soviet-supplied MI-24 attack helicopters. The MI-24, armored to repel ground fire, is the fastest and most heavily armed helicopter in the Soviet arsenal.
The Sandinista government acknowledges that it has MI-24s but denies that they have been used in combat. Capt. Rosa Pasos, spokeswoman for the Nicaraguan Defense Ministry, said by telephone from Managua that the gunships "have not even made test flights."
To succeed in his war against the Soviet-equipped Sandinistas, Pastora says he needs many millions of dollars. The $14 million in contra aid available in March, if both the House and Senate vote to release the funding, is not nearly enough for both his Democratic Revolutionary Alliance and the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, he said.
He acknowledged that rebel unity might help bring in more aid, and he did not rule out an alliance with the northern force. But he insisted that no military unity is possible as long as the northern force's leadership includes Col. Enrique Bermudez and other former members of the late President Anastasio Somoza's National Guard.
The Nicaraguan Democratic Force is proposing a political agreement among all rebel forces to present a still-undisclosed ultimatum to the Sandinistas. Pastora said he is willing to negotiate political unity as long as it is aimed at reinforcing a policy of war against the Sandinistas.
"I am not for negotiations and truces with the government of Managua," he said.
With or without rebel unity, and with or without increased aid, Pastora vows to continue his guerrilla war.
"Brother, in guerrilla warfare I can keep going as long as I live," he said. "In the next four months, in this dry season, if we don't get what we need to defend ourselves, they are going to kill many of us, but they are not going to annihilate us."