The Nicaraguan revolution has won an important battle against the Reagan administration but, in Sandinista eyes, the war against U.S.-backed rebels is still very much on.
Throughout President Reagan's fight to get $14 million more for the insurgents, Sandinista leaders had made it clear that their objective was the end of U.S. military pressure against their revolution and resumption of direct talks to normalize relations with the United States. The clear-cut vote yesterday against further rebel funding, therefore, was seen here as an agreeable demonstration that key Sandinista arguments were shared by the House of Representatives, but not as a solution to the guerrilla conflict being waged here since 1981.
"President Reagan himself has said that independently of the vote in Congress he would never abandon his brothers, as he likes to call the CIA mercenaries, that he would continue violating all the laws and looking for a way to go on financing crime and destruction in Nicaragua," Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto said in a statement made public today.
"Let us have no illusions. The war has not ended. The war continues. The CIA is still directing the mercenaries and seeking other ways of funding. But the vote is an important step, inasmuch as it isolates the president, because Congress has said it will no longer be an accomplice to his policy of state terrorism."
Echoing the Sandinista warnings, leaders of the main guerrilla group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, pledged in Honduras and the United States that they will carry on their battle to overthrow the six-year-old Sandinista government even without the $14 million denied in Congress. The pledges recalled similar declarations last summer, when Congress first imposed a rebel funding cutoff after approving approximately $80 million in CIA financial and logistics aid over three years.
The guerrilla war did continue despite that cutoff. Nicaraguan Democratic Force commanders and Sandinista officials agree that rebel forces achieved their greatest penetration, rhythm of attacks and staying power in the northern Nicaraguan mountains last fall and winter, months after U.S. funding was supposed to have stopped.
Rebel leaders and U.S. officials said the explanation was increased popular support among Nicaraguan peasants and financial support from private sympathizers in the United States and "political circles" elsewhere. For Sandinista officials, however, the explanation was continued financial backing by the Reagan administration through CIA money laundered to get around the congressional ban.
Whatever the source of financial support, it eventually diminished, and the rebels' momentum faded early this year. Sandinista officials began boasting that the insurgents were being pushed back to the border and into their camps in Honduras mainly because of improved tactics by the Popular Sandinista Army. Rebel leaders, who allowed reporters to visit their formerly clandestine camps during the campaign for the $14 million, said instead that ammunition and other supplies had run short, forcing many of their approximately 12,000 troops to retreat across the border.
Former Nicaraguan National Guard colonel Enrique Bermudez, the rebel force's military commander, stressed to visiting reporters that, in addition to the immediate funding problem, the vote had been turned into a political test of Reagan's support for the rebels. Without endorsement from Congress, he predicted, the rebel group's political representatives will be forced to seek private and other non-U.S. funds under a cloud of political uncertainty, and guerrilla leaders in the mountains will be forced to seek recruits and cooperation under the same cloud of doubt.
In addition, the Honduran military leadership has grown increasingly nervous about continuing to offer havens and logistical support to the rebels without a clear agreement by the United States that its policy will not suddenly shift, leaving the Hondurans exposed to a quarrel with Nicaragua over a cause no longer shared by Washington.
In the view from Managua, however, the Reagan administration still can recover from the loss of political support in Washington. Sandinista officials noted, for example, that the administration already is asking for rebel financing for 1986. One Foreign Ministry official suggested that rebel leaders had been exaggerating the political impact of yesterday's vote as a lobbying tactic.
In this perspective, the official said, President Daniel Ortega and the other eight members of the ruling Sandinista National Directorate deliberately kept their reaction to the vote low key.
Ortega's office only announced that 107 prisoners tied to the rebellion will be released. Although officials here would not say definitively, that apparently was the gesture Ortega had pledged in return for congressional rejection of the $14 million.
Recent Sandinista pledges for broader measures, such as restoration of civil liberties including freedom of the press, appeared tied to the longer term goals of having Washington call off military pressure and renew talks. Senators John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) brought Ortega's latest formulation of those goals to Washington at the funding debate's hottest point last weekend, creating a link -- in time, at least -- that never really existed here.
In an apparent attempt to make that clear, Ortega gave his version of the coversations with Kerry and Harkin last Sunday, underlining the Sandinista stand that the first step must be a decision in Washington to halt the guerrilla attacks. Only when that happens and the direct talks in Manzanillo, Mexico, resume, he said, can the Sandinista government restore the civil liberties now restricted by a war-induced state of emergency.