President Daniel Ortega said last night that even if Nicaragua's counterrevolutionary rebels receive $100 million aid from the U.S. this year, he believes they will not pose a military threat to his government's stability.
"As long as the United States finances them, we will have them around for many years," said the olive drab-uniformed Sandinista chief of state. "But they will no longer be a threat to our revolution."
Ortega's remarks came in an interview in which he announced new measures Nicaragua is willing to take in the context of the Contadora regional peace talks to reduce its armaments. Nicaragua seemed to seek a small advance in those labyrinthine negotiations to show that it is willing to compromise to keep the talks from foundering.
The draft treaty seeks to limit overall armament levels, foreign military maneuvers and the number of foreign military advisers in the region.
The president said Nicaragua has compiled a list of all its military equipment and personnel in 14 categories. It announced the categories May 27. Nicaragua will turn over the list when the other Central American countries draw up similar inventories, he said.
Nicaragua also accepted a recent proposal by Guatemala and Costa Rica that the five nations in the region assign point values to different weapons and evaluate their arsenal as a total of points.
The government released a letter from Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto to eight Latin American nations sponsoring the Contadora peace talks, saying that Nicaragua is ready to sign a draft treaty but insists that talks also be held between Nicaragua and the United States.
Congress is expected to vote Thursday on an aid package for the anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras, short for counterrevolutionaries, which includes $30 million in nonlethal aid and $70 million in military aid. Some members of Congress, led by Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), are supporting provisions that would delay the weapons funds until October to see if regional peace talks progress.
The Sandinista president, who was once a guerrilla commander, estimated that about 6,000 contra fighters are inside Nicaragua in a current offensive.
He asserted that they have "exhausted" their ability to attract new recruits and "no longer have the capacity to attack major military targets."
"We don't see any danger that the $100 million will strengthen the contras," Ortega said.
The Contadora talks were initiated in January 1983 by representatives of Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela meeting on Panama's Contadora Island; Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay later formed a support group. The five Central American nations failed to meet a June 6 deadline to conclude the increasingly complex, troubled talks.
Nicaragua's inventory lists all military planes, helicopters and airports, as well as tanks, some artillery and the number of foreign military advisers.
It does not include infantry soldiers or their rifles, the Sandinistas' main asset in their battle against the contras. The Popular Sandinista Army is estimated at 63,000 regulars backed by and more than 100,000 militia members, the largest armed force in Central America.
The point totals, Ortega said, would allow each nation to decide which weapons or foreign advisers to give up.
"If the government of El Salvador wants to mobilize 500,000 troops against the revolutionary forces there, let them do it," Ortega said.
He declined to disclose any new details about the numbers and kinds of arms in Nicaragua's still-secret inventory.
Diplomats here said a cargo shipment originating in the Soviet military port of Nikolayev, which passed through Cuba's Mariel harbor, was unloaded in mid-May at the west coast port of Corinto. The crates were believed to contain a number of new Soviet Mi17 transport helicopters, the diplomats said.
In a concession to Honduras, which hosts continuous exercises by U.S. forces, Nicaragua said it would accept a reduction in foreign maneuvers rather than a prohibition. But Nicaragua continues to insist on signing a separate protocol with the United States at the end of the Contadora negotiations, to end U.S. support for the contras.