The incoming Honduran administration is expected to lift the current ban on most deliveries of U.S. assistance for Nicaraguan rebels after President-elect Jose Azcona takes office next Monday, according to a variety of well-placed sources.
Delivery of the boots, ponchos, uniforms and other supplies would be a big boost for the guerrillas, rebel officials said in interviews. They blamed shortage of such gear for the sharp fall-off in their military activities since September, although diplomatic and military sources said that the main reason was the improved performance of the Nicaraguan armed forces.
The U.S. Congress last summer approved $27 million of nonlethal assistance for the rebels, who also are known as counterrevolutionaries, or contras. About half of that sum has been spent to buy supplies, but much of the most needed gear is in storehouses in the United States because Honduras' outgoing president, Roberto Suazo Cordova, has barred it from entering the country.
Suazo prevented airplanes or ships from delivering the supplies because of a dispute with the United States that erupted in the closing months of his government. He was irritated because Washington has withheld delivery of $50 million of economic aid for Honduras, and the U.S. Embassy repeatedly made statements that it opposed a series of political maneuvers by Suazo designed to extend his stay in power beyond his term.
Publicly, the U.S. government said it was withholding the economic aid because Honduras had failed to meet several economic targets that it had set for itself. Privately, however, U.S. officials in Washington have said that they also were worried that the Suazo administration would misuse that aid.
Now both the contras and Washington are known to expect that incoming president Azcona will lift Suazo's ban on delivery of the supplies. "We believe that Azcona is not going to have the same position as the current government," a contra source said.
Sources close to Azcona said that a final decision has not yet been made, but that the president looked favorably on permitting delivery of nonmilitary assistance to the contras. "Azcona has indicated that the deliveries will be allowed," a knowledgeable official said.
The contras are based in camps in southern Honduras near the Nicaraguan border, so the assistance must be funneled through this country. That creates problems for the Honduran government, however, because it denies publicly that it provides sanctuary for the rebels.
The government was embarrassed on Oct. 10 when a U.S. television crew was aboard the second flight carrying nonmilitary gear from the United States to Honduras. The government confiscated those supplies, and flights have not been permitted since then.
The contras have been able to receive some of the aid in the form of canned food and medical supplies. The contras have spent money here to buy the food or medicine and are being reimbursed by the United States.
In addition, the contras have purchased some food in El Salvador and transported it into Honduras by truck, according to knowledgeable sources. But contra leaders said that the gear that they need most -- especially boots -- had not arrived.
"We haven't received even a single pair of boot laces," said the contras' military commander, Enrique Bermudez. He declined to discuss why the gear had not arrived, but he blamed the lack of supplies for the contras' military difficulties in the closing months of last year.
"In 1985, our military activities were reduced to 50 percent of our capacity," Bermudez said. He added that the contras will strongly support the U.S. administration's effort this spring to persuade Congress to grant military aid to the rebels, and estimated that his forces need $100 million in military aid this year.
"We need lethal aid to accelerate the war, to shorten the war," Bermudez said. "Many private contributors have stopped giving because they say we've got aid now. They believe that now we have sufficient help," he added.
If Azcona permitted delivery of the supplies as expected, he would have to do so secretly. He is publicly opposed to the contras' presence in Honduras, although he has toned down his statements on that subject since his election Nov. 24.
In the long run, the president-elect would like the contras to move their bases out of Honduras and into Nicaragua, according to the sources close to Azcona. But he realizes that this could be a long process, and he does not intend to push for an abrupt shift in policy, they said.