A rift between the top two Contra leaders has shaken the U.S.-backed rebel movement and apparently weakened its hand in peace talks with Nicaragua's Sandinista government, U.S. and rebel officials say.
The feuding came to a head last weekend when Adolfo Calero, the premier Contra civilian leader, tried to take personal control of the rebel army in what one American official called "an attempted putsch " against the supreme military commander, Enrique Bermudez.
Backed by most rebel field commanders at a meeting here, Bermudez retained his overall command and ousted five supporters of Calero, including two leading negotiators, from their military posts.
The one-time allies patched up their dispute on paper Wednesday. But American and rebel officials said the divisive issues--the two men's strong personalities, mutual distrust and conflicting views on the prospect of resuming the six-year war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government--remain unsettled.
As a result of the feud, Contra officials fear they are in a weaker position to win from the Sandinista regime the democratic reforms and other concessions that they say are essential to a permanent peace agreement.
"We all have the same goal of a democratic Nicaragua, but some of us think we have to negotiate with a pistol on the table and others think we have to treat the Sandinistas with courtesy," said Jaime Morales Carazo, a Contra negotiator. "But before we can deal with the enemy, we have to overcome the rivalries and jealousies within our own house."
Privately, the Reagan Administration appeared to back both sides in the power struggle, rebel officials said. Then, fearing the rift had undermined the rebel cause, it pushed them hard to make peace with each other.
Elliott Abrams, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Latin American affairs, flew to Miami on Tuesday evening and met with the entire rebel leadership, including Bermudez.
On Wednesday, the military high command issued a statement supporting the rebel civilian leaders' conduct of peace negotiations, which are to resume in Managua today. The three days of talks are aimed at turning a truce accord signed last month into a formal cease-fire.
Earlier, Calero and the rest of the four-member Contra political directorate issued their own statement supporting a separation of civilian and military authority.
In a telephone interview from Miami, Calero denied the account of his failed attempt to oust Bermudez, as told by sources here and in Washington. "I am not that dumb," he said. "I have my job and (Bermudez) has his. My job is not to run troops and his job is not to run the political side."
A diplomat with inside knowledge of the Contras said their truce on paper "has restored a necessary facade of unity, but who knows for how long?"
Contra leaders have been feuding openly since the rise of their insurgency six years ago, but a reorganization last year gave the rebels a broad-based civilian directorate and a degree of political unity.
Until the reorganization, Calero was civilian chief of the Contras' main military force, which is based in Honduras and commanded by Bermudez. A conservative political leader, Calero became the dominant figure on the new directorate, while Bermudez, a like-minded former National Guard officer under the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship, was confirmed in his military post.
Bermudez's trust of Calero was undermined last year as the Iran-Contra hearings in the United States revealed how Calero had spent U.S. funds without Bermudez's knowledge, an American official said.
The strain between the two men has been magnified by two major events in quick succession: Congress' cutoff of Contra military aid in February and the March 23 truce accord in Sapoa, Nicaragua. Alfredo Cesar, who joined Calero in negotiating that agreement, has described its impact on the rebel movement as "a political earthquake."
Bermudez, who has not taken part in the talks, first criticized the accord as "poorly negotiated." Later he supported it as an opportunity to extract political reforms in follow-up negotiations.
But lately, as negotiations on how to separate the two armies for the formal 60-day cease-fire have reached an impasse, Bermudez has been speaking on the radio to his troops about the inevitability of resuming the war.
Meanwhile, he has removed from the negotiating team two military leaders who had joined Calero in voicing support for a political solution. One, Walter Calderon, was ousted as chief of operations, the rebel army's fifth-ranking post.
"Bermudez sent his military men to the talks thinking the Sandinistas were not interested in peace," said an adviser to the government negotiating team. "When they realized the Sandinistas were serious, they abandoned him."
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has accused Bermudez of acting with CIA encouragement to wreck the peace talks and resume the war, and his criticism is echoed privately by Contra supporters of Calero.
Bermudez's backers charge that Calero is rushing toward an armistice, without enough concessions to make Nicaragua more democratic, so he can return from exile as the leading anti-Sandinista politician.
"Calero has given up on a military solution and Bermudez has not," said a diplomat here.
Bosco Matamoros, a Contra spokesman, said the divisions in rebel ranks stem from the military officers' fears that their force could disintegrate if a bad agreement is reached. "We have not managed this process well," Matamoros said.
Exploited by Sandinistas
Other rebel officials say the Sandinistas have exploited the Contra divisions well by taking a hard line in the talks.
"Instead of uniting us, this has just made it more difficult to convince the skeptics in our ranks of the need to continue the negotiations," said a rebel leader.
But an American legal adviser to the Sandinistas, Paul S. Reichler, said the government is frustrated by the split among the Contras. "It's easier to fight them when they are divided like this but harder to make peace," he said.
Under the settlement between Contra factions, Bermudez is supporting this week's talks by sending a five-man team of military negotiators, led by his chief of staff, to accompany the civilian directorate to Managua. Aristides Sanchez, a director who dropped out of the last round of talks in support of Bermudez, is expected to return.
The statement signed by Bermudez on Wednesday said the military leadership "trusts that in the Managua meeting, the Sandinista regime will comply with its commitments" implicit in the Sapoa accord "to achieve peace and reconciliation through democratization."
Rebel and U.S. officials interpreted this as a warning that the rebel army might not support further talks unless the Sandinistas make significant concessions this week.
Calero said he is skeptical about any progress. He said the Sandinistas want to withhold the delivery of food, clothing and medicine to rebel troops in cease-fire zones unless Contra leaders commit themselves to a deadline for disarming their forces.
"That is unacceptable," he said, adding that "I am feeling less optimistic because of the Sandinistas' intransigent position."
Boudreaux reported from Tegucigalpa and McManus from Washington.