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U.S. to Contras: Don’t Count on Any More Aid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush Administration has told the Nicaraguan Contras that they cannot count on continued U.S. aid after the Nicaraguan election next month and that they should begin to plan the demobilization of most of their force, U.S. and Contra officials said Friday.

Administration officials promised to seek continued aid from Congress to help the estimated 12,000 rebels move back to Nicaragua or to other countries from their bases in Honduras, the officials said.

But a Contra spokesman said the U.S. officials also warned bluntly that “Congress is not going to keep extending the aid indefinitely.”

The message to the Contras, delivered in a meeting on Wednesday between Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson and rebel military leader Enrique Bermudez, is the clearest sign yet that the Administration expects most of the rebel army to disband after the Feb. 25 election.

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Some Contra officials are openly resentful of the Administration’s decision. “This is a decision . . . by people who have no guts,” said Adolfo Calero, a conservative Contra leader. “We have been treated very badly.”

But others said they accept it as realistic.

“We are disappointed, but as a political organization we have to be pragmatic enough to recognize the conditions that influence the policy of the United States,” said Bosco Matamoros, the rebels’ chief spokesman, who attended the meeting with Aronson. “Is there a political will to restart the war in Nicaragua, taking into account the changing American relationship with the Soviet Union? The answer is no.”

The Administration action was part of a series of steps taken during the past year to disengage from the Contra war. Supporting the rebels’ attempts to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist government was a major preoccupation of President Ronald Reagan, who backed them with millions of dollars and occasional help from CIA paramilitary forces. But President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have moved steadily away from the Reagan Administration’s commitment, although they have publicly pledged to uphold it.

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Despite the account of the Wednesday meeting from Administration officials speaking anonymously, the State Department insisted in public that no decisions have been made yet about aid for the Contras once the current appropriation of about $4.5 million a month in non-military assistance runs out. Administration officials expect the money to last until the end of March.

“The United States government remains committed to the resistance,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “No specific future action has been ruled in or out.”

Boucher said Aronson told the Contra leaders “that decisions on the nature of future assistance would depend in part on the conduct of elections in Nicaragua.” He did not elaborate.

Administration officials once hoped to keep the Contra force alive as a means of putting pressure on Nicaragua’s leftist government if President Daniel Ortega wins reelection. As a result, the Administration initially resisted a call by the five Central American presidents last year to demobilize the Contras by last Dec. 5.

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But officials now say the chance of winning approval in Congress for renewed military aid to the rebels has virtually evaporated, even if the Sandinista government wins the election through fraud.

“The votes aren’t there, any way you look at it,” one official said.

U.S. and Contra officials said they expect some of the remaining Contras to return to Nicaragua under an amnesty program and a handful to go into the country’s northern mountains to keep fighting the government without U.S. aid.

But the largest number may well ask for relocation in the United States or other countries in Central America--posing a dilemma for the Administration, which has not yet decided whether to offer refugee status to the rebels.

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Bermudez, in an interview with the Boston Globe, said Aronson told him that further U.S. aid could only be used to help Contras return to Nicaragua--a choice many of the rebels reject.

“They are not going to abandon us totally, but they will reduce the money and allow its use only for purposes of repatriation,” Bermudez said. “Basically, they told me that no other option will happen . . . unless the Sandinistas do something like kill all the opposition leaders at once and then hang them in a public square in Managua.”

But U.S. officials contested that account, saying they had not made a final decision as to how aid will be restricted after the election.

“We had three messages for them,” a senior official said of the meeting. “First, this government has a moral commitment to the Contras. Second, we’ve got to start talking about the situation after February. But third, I can’t tell you what the aid is going to look like, because we don’t know how the election has turned out.”

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“The issue was: What is the current political reality, and what are our options?” Matamoros said. “The international environment makes it very unlikely that there will be continued U.S. aid. . . . So our options are basically reintegration into national life in Nicaragua or relocation into third countries.”

“That means it’s over,” Calero said.

Times researcher Aleta Embrey contributed to this story.


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