President Reagan, employing some of his sharpest language in recent months in support of the Contras, raised the specter Wednesday of a Communist Managua regime moving north and turning the Gulf of Mexico into an American version of the war-torn Persian Gulf if U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan rebels is cut off.
Reagan, anticipating an extremely close vote on his upcoming request for new Contra aid, scoffed at reforms announced by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and said, "This vote will be remembered by the American people either as the time we acted to support freedom and kept our mainland secure or as the beginning of one of America's most tragic mistakes."
The tone of the President's remarks, made in a speech to Contra supporters, reflects the White House's make-or-break view of the vote. If Congress rejects the aid request, Administration officials say they fear that the Democrats controlling the House and Senate will not schedule any more votes this year on assistance to the Contras.
"We're at a critical juncture," Reagan said. "If Congress votes down aid this time, the decision may well be irrevocable. And, if that happens, it's my great fear that we will have abandoned all hope for democracy in Nicaragua and peace in Central America."
With the first vote scheduled in the House on Feb. 3, the issue is likely to dominate Reagan's schedule in the next two weeks. White House staff members not directly involved in Central American affairs and congressional relations have been assigned to help round up support.
One Administration official said earlier that, as of Monday, a tentative decision had been made to seek $100 million for the rebels when Reagan sends his formal request to Congress next Tuesday. However, a senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that the figure has been trimmed--a development that reflects the difficulty of winning approval for the funding.
"The more money you ask for, the fewer votes you get," he said.
In the first of several speeches the President is scheduled to give on Contra aid in the next two weeks, Reagan said: "Imagine the effect on U.S. national security if the Sandinista vision of a Communist Central America is realized and Mexico is threatened. Imagine if, for the first time in this century, we had to concern ourselves with a security threat on our southern border. Imagine our vital sea lanes through the gulf put in jeopardy. The kind of turmoil that exists in the Persian Gulf cannot be allowed to exist in the Gulf of Mexico."
The President said it is "willfully naive to think the Soviet Union, beset by a crisis in its own economy, would be pouring billions of dollars into a country on the other side of the world if they didn't see great opportunities there."
"It's time to realize that the Sandinista Communists and their Soviet mentors are serious people with serious objectives. It's time we got serious, too," Reagan told a group of civic leaders, state legislators and church officials in the East Room of the White House.
Criticism by Wright
The President's hard edge was quickly countered by House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who said: "The sudden speed with which the Administration . . . was plowing straight ahead with more military money before even waiting to test the sincerity of the new concessions offered (by Nicaragua) leads me to the reluctant conclusion that those in charge of Administration policy do not really want a peaceful settlement."
Democrats in Congress opposing continued aid have said that Ortega's moves to comply with the requirements of last August's Central American peace accord--reached with the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras--stemmed from a Soviet refusal to supply Nicaragua with the aid needed to defeat the Contras militarily. On Saturday, Ortega promised to lift a state of emergency that had curtailed civil liberties and to hold face-to-face talks with leaders of the Contras.
But Reagan, reflecting a fear in the Administration that such steps could build opposition to the funding request, said, "Each reluctant reform is still easily undone."