President Reagan renewed his commitment to the Nicaraguan insurgents Sunday, though he appeared to shift the focus of his Administration's policy away from the military situation to the need to restore democracy to the Central American country.
"This Administration's support of the Nicaraguan freedom fighters in their struggle for peace and democratic government will not change unless the regime in Nicaragua accedes to the democratic aspirations of the Nicaraguan people," he told the American Newspaper Publishers Assn., which had gathered on Ellis Island in New York Harbor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
Won't Halt Support
"For as long as I am President, I have no intention of withdrawing our support of these efforts by the Nicaraguan people to gain their freedom and the right to choose their own national future," he added.
Reagan called on Congress to renew funding for the contras , saying: ". . . I stress the danger of the course argued by some in the Congress, that the most expeditious route to peace in Central America is abandoning our commitment to the Nicaraguan freedom fighters."
The speech, billed as "an important policy address" by the White House, was described by White House officials as the President's opening shot in his campaign to pressure Congress to support his program of assistance to the contras--an effort that will likely continue until the end of the summer, when Congress is expected to vote on the matter.
'Reshuffling of Cards'
A White House official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said Reagan's speech represents "a reshuffling of the cards," shifting the Administration's focus away from the military realm to that of promoting the need for free elections and freedom of speech in Nicaragua, putting pressure on Congress while "recognizing it gets tougher each time" to win funding approval.
Thus, he said, Reagan had decided to emphasize diplomatic opportunities in Nicaragua, believing that military pressure by the contras could lead to free elections.
This approach would seem to recognize the military impediments the contras face in Nicaragua in their effort to overthrow the Soviet-backed Sandinista government, as well as the reality of congressional opposition to a military program, particularly in the wake of the Iran-contra arms affair.
"It's a question of trying to figure out how you try to frame the debate in a way that is understood, more than just in terms of a military decision," the White House official said.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the speech was designed to "send a strong message about our support for democracy in Nicaragua."
Reaching a Lot of People
He added: "The timing is such that it sends that message to a lot of different people. One, it's on the eve of the hearings; two, it is to the American Newspaper Publishers Assn., and three, it comes at a time when we're appearing to request additional funding which would go to the Hill for consideration, hopefully, in August or September."
The President has requested $105 million is assistance for the Nicaraguan insurgents for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, an increase of $5 million over the current funding.
Reagan made no reference in his speech to joint hearings by House and Senate committees, slated to begin Tuesday, that will investigate the secret diversion of funds to the contras from illegal U.S. arms sales to Iran. Instead, he urged lawmakers to view aid to the contras as the most effective route to democracy in Nicaragua.
". . . The upcoming vote in Congress on whether to continue providing support to the freedom fighters in Nicaragua may well be the most important vote our representatives cast in 1987--and possibly one of the most important tests in their careers in public office," he said.
'Democracy Taking Root'
Reagan described Central America as a region where "military dictatorships have dominated society," but where, since 1981, "democracy is taking root."
A decade ago, only Costa Rica was a democracy, he said. "Today, Costa Rica has been joined by elected civilian governments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras--only Nicaragua remains a dictatorship. But while the trend toward democracy is unmistakable, the threat to freedom and democracy in Central America remains powerful because of Sandinista totalitarianism in Nicaragua."
The elected leaders of neighboring countries "know the Nicaraguan regime threatens their own future and the stability of this hemisphere," he said.
". . . The views of our Central American friends and the aspirations of the Nicaraguan people are one and the same--the establishment of full, popularly elected, legitimate democratic rule in Nicaragua," he said. "So what we seek for Nicaragua is simple enough: self-determination for the Nicaraguan people--the right to select their own leaders in free, fair, contested and regularly scheduled elections."
$1 Billion in Soviet Aid
Saying that Soviet Bloc assistance to the Sandinistas exceeded $1 billion in 1986 alone, Reagan again stressed that U.S. desertion of the region would result in the Communist prediction of "revolutionary fire sweeping across Central America."
"I do not intend to leave such a crisis for the next American President," he said.
He pledged to fight for additional aid to the four Central American democracies and to continue "close cooperation with our democratic friends" there.
"Congress has expressed its support for the efforts of the Central American democracies to achieve a diplomatic settlement to the regional conflict," he said. "They have asked for an increased effort by the United States to examine ways for a peaceful conclusion to the civil strife in Nicaragua."
Reagan said his Administration "has always supported regional diplomatic initiatives aimed at peace and democracy. . . . Let me say right now that I will lend my full support to any negotiations that can build democracy throughout Central America without further bloodshed."
Staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.