House Approves Funds for Contras : Officials Say Vote Will Escalate War, Embolden Allies

Times Staff Writer

The House vote Wednesday to provide non-weapons aid to Nicaraguan rebels opens the way for a new escalation of the contras’ faltering war against the leftist Sandinista regime and should embolden other Central American countries to step up their opposition to Nicaragua, Reagan Administration officials said.

Some officials, convinced that a new consensus is forming behind President Reagan’s policy in Central America, say they may soon propose renewed military aid to the contras and even a resumption of U.S. covert action against Nicaragua--although other officials said the Administration is divided on how far to push its new-found support.

In a written statement, Reagan hailed the vote as “historic” and said: “A clear bipartisan majority has shown that our nation stands with those who are determined to pursue a political solution and seek a democratic outcome to the crisis in Nicaragua.”

Clear Endorsement


Despite the restrictions that the Democratic-led House attached to the $27-million package--it cannot be used to buy weapons or ammunition and cannot be administered by the CIA or the Defense Department--Administration officials and congressmen said the vote was a clear endorsement of Reagan’s basic policy of supporting the contras as a way to force the Sandinistas to alter their leftist policies.

“This sends a signal that we’re not going to abandon the people who we believe really are fighting for what the (Nicaraguan) revolution is about,” Vice President George Bush said in an interview Wednesday. “You need to keep the pressure on. . . . Our goal will remain democracy--a democratic revolution--which in the first instance was what the Sandinista revolution was all about.”

The Republican-led Senate already has approved a similar proposal, and the resumption of U.S. aid to the rebels will end a year-long cutoff that followed Congress’ discovery, in early 1984, that the CIA had mined Nicaragua’s harbors as part of an $80-million covert program that began in 1982.

“This should put us back on the track that we fell off a year ago,” a State Department official said.


The first effect, officials said, should be a boost in morale for the estimated 16,000 contras fighting in the rugged hill country of northern and central Nicaragua--followed by an infusion of supplies that will allow the rebels to expand their army and increase its operations.

The aid should also encourage neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica to press their grievances against Nicaragua more strongly by giving them confidence that the United States will continue to support the contras over the long run, officials said.

‘Support Military Efforts’

Although Reagan described the aid as “humanitarian assistance,” he made it clear in a letter to Congress that the purpose of the money was to “support . . . the military efforts of the resistance.”


In a secret report that accompanied his initial request for military aid in April, Reagan said his goal was to enable the contras to expand from 16,000 men to as many as 35,000, to “levels sufficient to create real pressures on the government of Nicaragua.”

Said Bush: “Nobody thinks that this grant, this kind of non-lethal aid to the contras, is going to solve the problem of the revolution. I don’t think this is going to solve the whole problem. But this, along with continued education as to what is happening there, will be very helpful.”

Some officials said they hope to build on their victory Wednesday to ask Congress later for more aid--and for aid that can be used to buy weapons and ammunition.

A senior Pentagon official also said the Administration already is considering a resumption of covert action against Nicaragua, in addition to the now-overt funding of the contras. Others said no such decision has yet been made and warned that a too-quick escalation would weaken support for the policy in Congress.


Full Consensus Needed

“It’s clear from the tone of the debate that we have the beginning of a consensus, but not a full consensus,” a senior State Department official said. “Until you have a full consensus that can support a policy for years to come, you’re not going to succeed.”

The Administration’s emphasis on winning a public consensus for the aid marks a major shift from the first two years of the program, when funds were funneled secretly through the CIA--partly to spare the United States the international discomfort of openly supporting a rebellion and partly because policy makers were not sure the public would support the program.

The need to win broad public support for the contras after the fiasco of the mining and allegations of contra atrocities impelled Reagan to launch a high-visibility campaign against the Sandinistas, whom he branded as “communists,” and for the rebels, whom he called “equals of our Founding Fathers.”


More Fighting First

Reagan has said he is still seeking a change in Nicaragua’s government through diplomatic means. However, both American and Nicaraguan officials said that in the short run, they expect more fighting before any new diplomatic movement.

“The Sandinistas have shown us that they are sometimes willing to negotiate, but only when they’re under pressure,” a White House official said. “We’re simply trying to increase the pressure.”

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto said in a telephone interview from New York: “This decision of Congress will only lead to more bloodshed. No matter what terms they use--humanitarian aid, non-military aid, whatever--the purpose is support of a policy, and the policy is to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution. And we are determined to resist that.”


He added quickly, in a mirror image of the Reagan Administration’s rhetoric: “But we will continue to look for a peaceful way.”