President Reagan and a Democratic Party spokesman expressed radically different views about the future of Nicaragua and of Central America on Saturday as the Administration and its opponents prepared for this week's showdown vote in Congress on aid to the U.S.-backed Contras.
In his weekly radio address to the nation, the President maintained that the United States should continue aid to the Nicaraguan rebels as a means of "keeping up the pressure" on the Sandinista government to move toward democratic reforms.
However, the opposition spokesman, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), contended that further aid to the Contras would impede, not help, the cause of democracy in Nicaragua. "Contra aid now would only strengthen . . . the hand of those among the Sandinistas who resist concessions and compromise," he said in the formal Democratic reply to Reagan's speech.
The statements amounted to a preview of the arguments that the two sides will be making in the final days leading up to the congressional vote. On Wednesday, the House is scheduled to vote on the President's request for $36.25 million for the Contras, including $3.6 million for arms.
In his five-minute speech Saturday, Reagan repeated his pledge that the $3.6 million in military aid would be put into escrow for a month while determining whether there is progress toward a cease-fire in Nicaragua. He also promised that he would consult with Congress and the leaders of other Central American countries before releasing the military aid.
Reagan, who will be delivering a televised speech about the Contras to the nation on the eve of the vote, Saturday depicted the Administration's policy as one that will help prevent violence and instability throughout the region.
"The Communist Sandinistas have sought to extend violence throughout all of Central America," he said. "It could be only a matter of time before serious unrest and instability reach Mexico. Were that to happen, the decade of the '90s could open with hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming towards our southern borders."
But the Democratic spokesman countered that it is the American aid to the Contras and the militarization accompanying it that is undermining stability.
"We know that as the region militarizes, the first casualties will be the fragile democracies there, which the Administration professes to be protecting," said Gephardt, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. "The leaders of all five Central American republics have called for an end to Contra aid. So have our allies in all of Latin America."
The President and the Democratic Party spokesman also took markedly different approaches toward the peace plan for Central America that was crafted last summer under the leadership of President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica. The agreement called for an end to fighting in each country, termination of outside support for insurgent movements, and significant movement toward greater civil liberties and democracy.
Reagan referred to the peace plan only briefly and did not mention Arias, who won a Nobel Prize for his efforts. The President suggested, however, that further aid to the Contras is necessary to help ensure that under the peace plan, the Nicaraguan government may "inch toward the conditions of genuine democracy."
By contrast, Gephardt gave the plan, and Arias himself, the lion's share of credit for moving Nicaragua toward democracy. "The Arias plan has brought in six months something the Contras couldn't achieve in six years: a reversal in the trend toward repression inside Nicaragua," Gephardt said.
In the radio address, the President said that 90% of the proposed aid package "is for non-lethal support, such as food, clothing, medicine and the means to deliver those items."
Gephardt countered that "the President's so-called humanitarian aid includes aircraft that will also carry the military supplies to kill human beings."