An article yesterday gave the wrong date for nonviolent civil disobedience planned at White House entrances by critics of aid to antigovernment rebels in Nicaragua. The event is scheduled Monday.
Congress this week begins a Nicaragua policy extravaganza -- a high-stakes battle over aid to "contra" rebels that will combine deadly purpose with pin stripes and clown acts.
For the first time, a president is publicly pushing Congress to fund attacks by U.S.-supported guerrillas on a foreign country with which the United States is not at war, while the target government is lobbying Congress against its own overthrow.
The Nicaraguan rebels also are lobbying, while U.S. church groups are leading the charge against the president. Few lawmakers have anything good to say about the government of Nicaragua, but many cannot stomach the rebels either, and each side accuses the other of a sophisticated "disinformation" campaign.
The pageantry involves computers and postcards, sit-ins and videotapes, clown shows and photos of bloody corpses, Nobel laureates and Hollywood actors. Mountains of paper, thousands of speeches and probably millions of telephone calls are involved, as well as a technique of direct contact with members of Congress called "the Willie Sutton approach," named for the notorious bank robber who said he robbed banks because that's where the money was.
"If somebody wrote a novel about this, it would not be credible," said Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs.
The votes are scheduled to begin April 23. All sides say the outcome will have broad repercussions for U.S. posture and image worldwide.
At stake is President Reagan's request for $14 million for the Central Intelligence Agency to aid about 14,000 antigovernment rebels fighting the leftist Sandinista rulers of Nicaragua.
In a new twist aimed at shoring up dwindling support for the three-year-old program, Reagan promised April 4 to use the funds only for food, medicine and clothing during a cease-fire as long as Nicaragua negotiates with the rebels toward new elections. If the rebels decide after 60 days that no progress has been made, Reagan would use the money to buy them guns.
The Sandinistas have rejected the proposal as a guise to force them to negotiate their demise. The administration has kept the offer open, trying to build domestic and international support for it.
Reagan's prestige is on the line. Congress has given him most of what he wants in other areas, but ended funding for the contra program last May.
He also has painted the issue in terms of worldwide U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union. A high White House official told reporters last week that the votes will be "a bellwether" on the likely U.S. response to future "low-level" Soviet challenges elsewhere.
"It's the last chance to avoid a Gulf of Tonkin situation," said another senior administration official, referring to the 1964 congressional resolution that approved direct U.S. military action in Vietnam. "It's the last chance to obtain any kind of reasonable alternative to either the direct use of military force or the abdication of U.S. responsibility in the region."
Reagan's critics say the stakes are even higher. "It's already a Gulf of Tonkin resolution," said Robert Borosage, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. "If Congress lets this go, then the floodgates are open for war in Central America."
Targets of the campaigns are "the 50 to 60 members of Congress who are in any mild form of doubt" about where they stand, according to a staff aide to House Majority Whip Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).
The Democratic-controlled House has voted three times to halt the program, and most counts gave the opposition a 20- to 30-vote margin there last week, before Congress went home for Easter recess to listen to its constituents. The Republican-dominated Senate has kept the aid alive, but resistance has been growing, and Vice President Bush is expected to be on hand for the vote in case of a tie.
When the rebel aid program began in early 1982, the administration said the insurgents would fight only to stop Nicaragua from sending arms to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador.
In late 1983, the argument shifted: Rebel pressure would move Nicaragua toward concessions to its domestic critics and toward regional peace negotiations. Now, the aid is justified as a bargaining chip to bring Nicaragua to the bargaining table.
A vote for the aid package, members of Congress are being told, is a vote for a middle course between direct U.S. military action and abandoning the region to communism. "Our only hope of staying out is in giving military assistance," said Jake Hansen, executive director of the American Conservative Union.
Reagan kicked off his campaign for the $14 million with a speech three weeks ago to 180 Central Americans who came to Washington to lobby for the guerrillas.
The talk was arranged by the special five-member Central America unit of the White House Office of Public Liaison, which has put on 96 seminars backing the administration policy in Central America since Reagan's speech on the region to a joint session of Congress in May 1983. The unit also has arranged 225 speeches in 75 cities in the past two years and plans to step up its activity.
Reagan opens the week with a major speech tonight at a $250-a-plate dinner of the Nicaraguan Refugee Fund. A senior aide said the president has jettisoned plans for a televised address and a major Miami appearance and instead is to appeal directly to members of Congress all week.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz and his assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, Langhorne A. Motley, "will be spending most of the week pushing this," a senior State Department official said. Shultz is to speak in Indianapolis on Central America on April 22.
Spearheading the lobbying effort is Citizens for Reagan, which is mobilizing its 100,000 members nationwide to contact about 75 key members of Congress, using computerized letters, postcards and phone calls, according to Chairman Kenneth F. Boehm. Spanish-language advertisements will appear in newspapers of key members of Congress with many Latin voters, he said.
Boehm said the group filed complaints in December with the Internal Revenue Service against the American Friends Service Committee and four smaller groups that it claimed have violated their tax-exempt status by lobbying on the Central America issue.
The American Conservative Union has sent out 100,000 pieces of mail and has been escorting Nicaraguan refugees around Capitol Hill "to describe the cruelty of the Sandinistas first hand," Hansen said. With the Ashbrook Foundation, the ACU plans an event for Saturday near the Washington Monument to counter a critics' demonstration the same day.
With bands, clowns, musicians, balloons and "very brief, very upbeat speeches," Hansen said, "we want to make people think about what freedom is."
The conservative Center for Inter-American Security is distributing proofs of a book, "The Revolution Lobby," which research fellow J. Michael Waller called "an overview of the leftist lobbies . . . aimed at fence-sitters who have been receiving disinformation from them." Since last fall, CIS has been running a half-hour television documentary, "Central America Before It's Too Late," which depicts Nicaragua as a Soviet tool bent on subverting its neighbors.
Adolfo Calero, head of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest rebel unit, said his group has found it necessary to open a Washington office and mount a major effort in support of the request for U.S. aid. "Every congressman is like his own foreign minister these days," Calero said.
In a paradox, the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua is just about friendless on Capitol Hill, even as a determined coalition prepares to battle against supporting the country's overthrow.
Led by organized church groups, the critics are attacking contra aid program as immoral, illegal, ineffective and counterproductive. They rarely defend Nicaragua.
"The debate is not about Nicaragua but about U.S. policy and whether this war is the moral and right thing to do," said Susan Benda of the Center for National Security Studies, one of the major vote-counters.
There appears to be general agreement in Congress that the Sandinista government at best is suspicious of democratic procedures, determined to maintain itself in power and intolerant of dissent, and that the United States should pressure it toward reform.
"We have to continue the pressure, but the question is what kind," said Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), considered a swing vote. "I haven't decided."
The Sandinistas "have done some incredibly stupid things," Barnes said. "If the vote were on whether you like the Sandinistas, it'd be 20-to-1 for the contras. But that's not the issue, and that's well understood here in Congress."
The Nicaraguan Embassy, therefore, is keeping a low profile, although Ambassador Carlos Tunnermann is quietly visiting selected members of Congress.
The moral argument -- and an attempt to redefine the U.S. national interest in moral terms -- is the critics' common ground and has been since the aid program began three years ago, said Richard Healey, director of the church-funded Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, which is coordinating much of the opposition activity.
"A lot of us are anticommunist and even anti-Sandinista, but we don't feel the United States should be imposing its will on a small country," he said.
The antiwar SANE organization plans to unveil 30-second radio and television spots today featuring Nicaraguans mangled in contra attacks and asking whether a vote for the contras is "a vote for heroism or terrorism." A 14-minute videotape with a similar approach, "Who Are the Contras?" was made by independent film makers for showings in Congress.
Reports outlining charges of rebel atrocities were issued in March, timed for use in the debate, by both Americas Watch, an arm of Helsinki Watch, and the International Human Rights Law Group, a liberal nonprofit firm that litigates on human rights charges.
Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a speech earlier that no military solution "is either possible or desirable" in Central America.
Other religious groups that spent last week visiting, calling and writing in opposition to contra aid include the National Council of Churches, the American Friends Service Committee, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, the Mennonites, the American Baptist Churches and assorted Catholic orders, plus many evangelical groups.
The Washington Office on Latin America, another liberal church-funded group, brought three American nuns from Nicaragua to Washington to describe contra attacks at about the same time the 180 businessmen arrived to boost the program.
Senior administration officials say that they do not know how to counter church opposition effectively, and all sides say they think that it will be influential in the vote.
"It's very hard for Reagan to grab the moral high ground" with the churches against him, said Cynthia Buhl, human rights coordinator for the coalition.
Some critics worry that calling U.S. action immoral will only irritate some members of Congress. The coalition and the Commission on U.S.-Central American Relations, headed by former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador Robert E. White, published the central document of the opposition, a thick indexed briefing book that includes several other arguments.
Common Cause is mobilizing its 250,000 members, and groups of Rhodes scholars, Nobel laureates, law school deans, former administration luminaries and Hollywood entertainers are poised to announce their opposition to the program next week.
A group called Witness for Peace has sent more than 600 Americans to visit areas of conflict in Nicaragua; another group backed by Sojourners magazine said it has 55,000 signatures on a "Pledge of Resistance" to begin nonviolent demonstrations if the aid is approved. "We regard it as a declaration of war on Nicaragua," said Sojourners spokesman Dennis Marker.
Demonstrations called "April Actions for Peace, Jobs and Justice" are scheduled next weekend in Washington and four other cities by a coalition of 80 liberal groups. Co-coordinator Leslie Cagan said there would be church services, picketing, a concert and a "festival of resistance" on the Ellipse, and a Saturday march and rally, all opposing U.S. policy in South Africa, military spending and the nuclear arms race and the rebel aid program. Groups were to try peacefully to block White House entrances today, Cagan said.
In Congress, opposition Democrats are trying to keep the issue bipartisan, preparing at least one alternative nonmilitary program that they hope will win over Republicans.
"Everybody on this side is very confident," Borosage said, "but we don't underestimate Reagan. We were also very confident before [we lost] the MX vote."