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U.S. Pressuring Contra Leaders to Return Home

Times Staff Writer

The Bush Administration is encouraging Nicaraguan rebel leaders to return to Managua and participate in the country’s upcoming election campaign as part of its new diplomatic strategy in Central America, U.S. and Contra officials said Tuesday.

Putting direct pressure on the civilian Contra leaders who have operated from offices in Miami for the last seven years, the Administration has also told the rebels that the $400,000-per-month CIA subsidy of their political operation will be cut by more than half, one Contra official said.

Contra Leaders Startled

“Exile politics is over,” a U.S. official told the startled Contra leaders in a meeting at the State Department last week, according to several rebel officials.

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But the Contra chiefs are bitterly divided over the issue, rebel officials said. One member of the seven-man leadership already has announced his decision to return home, but others are said to be unhappy with the U.S. decision, arguing that it is too early for such a move.

State Department and CIA officials have told the Contra leaders that their main goal during the next 10 months should be to test the willingness of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to move toward genuine democracy and to conduct free and fair elections in February, 1990, rebel officials said.

Their urgings are part of the new strategy toward Nicaragua authored by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, which shifts the emphasis of U.S. policy toward political and diplomatic pressure on the Sandinistas. Baker and President Bush won formal support for the new strategy last week from both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress, who said they also will approve about $40 million in non-military aid for Contra troops in the period leading to the elections.

“The Americans were very clear. They want this strategy to work,” said Bosco Matamoros, the Contras’ spokesman here. “And our objective, too, is to participate in a democratic political process. But to have such a process, you have to have a unified democratic alternative and a national dialogue, and these things haven’t happened yet.”

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No Deadlines Noted

“Nobody has given us any deadlines for getting back to Managua,” he added.

A Contra official who refused to be identified said more bluntly: “The gringos might say the Contras should go back to Managua, but we’re not going to go back just because the gringos tell us to.”

By all other accounts, however, the U.S. message was gentler than that. Alfredo Cesar, one Contra leader who attended the meeting at the State Department, described Administration officials as saying:

“We have a new policy in place. The Nicaraguan resistance is a very important actor. . . .

“It’s your personal decision. We can’t force any of you to go back. We’ll respect your decision. But the only game the Bush Administration will support is the game of internal politics--the game of an internal challenge to the Sandinistas.”

Nevertheless, the Administration’s decision to cut the funding for the Contras’ Miami-based political operation is a pointed message, rebel officials said. The Contras have run a CIA-funded political and public-relations operation from Miami since 1982, and most of their civilian leaders maintain homes there.

Cesar has said that he expects the Administration to end entirely its funding of the Contras’ Miami and other exile operations. But Matamoros and other, more conservative Contra officials said they believe the rebels must maintain at least a skeleton presence in Washington and Miami until the February, 1990, elections.

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Cesar told reporters last week that he has decided to return to Nicaragua in accordance with Administration’s wishes.

“Clearly we have a whole new ballgame,” he said. “I will go back to Nicaragua and play the internal political game.”

He said he may return to Managua in May, depending on the progress of political reforms there. A wealthy businessman and political centrist, Cesar has said privately that he would be interested in running for president of Nicaragua if the opposition supported him as its sole candidate.

The Bush Administration’s new strategy on Nicaragua seeks to focus U.S. and international attention on the country’s election campaign as a test of whether the Sandinista government will deliver on its promises of genuine democracy.

For that strategy to work, U.S. and Contra officials have said, both the Administration and the rebels must be seen making a good-faith effort to support fair elections.

At the same time, Baker won agreement from the Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress to maintain the estimated 12,000 Contra troops until election day--and made it clear that, if the election is not fair, the Administration may seek renewed military funding for the rebels.


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