WASHINGTON — Col. Enrique Bermudez, a hard-bitten officer of Nicaragua's vanquished National Guard, had been fighting a lonely war against his country's leftist regime for two years when, in 1981, he heard news that seemed the answer to his prayers: The United States had secretly decided to back his rebel army.
Suddenly, as Bermudez recalled recently, "I could feel the steps of a giant animal."
The giant animal was the Central Intelligence Agency, and its impact on the ragtag opponents of Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista regime was enormous. Acting through a covert action officer with a penchant for quick action and a direct line to U.S. spy chief William J. Casey, CIA operatives took a scant 24 months to whip Bermudez's guerrillas into a well-equipped, aggressive army of more than 10,000 men, then sent the CIA's own paramilitary experts--some of them Americans--into the thick of the escalating war.
CIA helicopters with American pilots, providing air cover for commando raids, battled Nicaraguan army units at the Pacific coast ports of Potosi and San Juan del Sur. Ecuadorean frogmen hired by the CIA slipped ashore from speedboats to plant bombs under Nicaraguan bridges. CIA transport planes flew deep into Nicaragua to drop supplies to guerrillas in the jungle. And a CIA "mother ship" in the Pacific launched seaborne commando teams to mine Nicaragua's harbors in an attempt to cut off the Sandinistas' overseas supply lines.
This whirlwind of action, directed by a man known to the insurgents by the code name "Maroni," is still lauded by some U.S. officials as a classic covert action that almost succeeded. But it also illustrates a problem that haunts U.S. policy-makers down to the present--a dilemma which, with the Reagan Administration now calling on Congress to renew its support for action against the Sandinistas, is more pressing than ever.
Reliance on Local Leaders
In the jungles of Nicaragua, as in Vietnam, Lebanon and other Third World trouble spots, U.S. policy often relies heavily on the cooperation of local leaders who may eventually prove both unsuited and unwilling to serve as instruments of American national interests.
In Nicaragua, the United States set out to forge a cluster of guerrilla groups, known as contras, into a weapon capable of coercing the Sandinistas into changing their leftward course, or even forcing the regime from power entirely. To succeed, however, that strategy rested on three crucial assumptions:
--That the anti-Sandinista rebels could unite their squabbling factions.
--That they could win broad political support among the Nicaraguan peasants.
--That they could achieve clear military victories over the revolutionary government in Managua.
The rebels fell short on all three.
First, the contras' two largest factions, far from being united, were in fact led by archenemies: Bermudez was tied to the late Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, while the other principle insurgent leader was Eden Pastora, a disaffected Sandinista hero.
Second, while Maroni--called Dewey since his school days but whose full name remains protected under federal law--considered the charismatic Pastora more likely to win political support in Nicaragua than Bermudez, Pastora refused to submit to the agency's demands. The agency sought tighter control over his operations, but the ex-Sandinista bristled instinctively at any hint of serving U.S. interests.
"I had only one problem with the CIA," Pastora said bitterly last week. "I didn't speak English well enough to say, 'Yes, sir.' " In the end, that meant the CIA was left relying on Bermudez, whose past service under Somoza drastically limited the support that his guerrillas could hope to attract in the countryside.
No Convincing Victories
Finally, the contras were unable to win convincing military victories all by themselves. That drew the CIA ineluctably into a direct role in the war. Initially, the Administration had wanted to remain at arm's length but, by the beginning of 1984, American special-operations men were in the center of the contras' fight.
In Nicaragua as so often before, growing U.S. involvement in a distant country not only raised awkward questions about a supposedly covert war but soon triggered cries of alarm in Congress--cries that eventually brought the Administration's efforts to a standstill.
When President Reagan secretly approved aid to the contras in November, 1981, the idea of overthrowing the Sandinistas seemed far-fetched. Bermudez' Nicaraguan Democratic Force (known as the FDN, for its Spanish initials) had been fighting since 1979, when the colonel and other National Guardsmen fled the Sandinista revolution, but it had accomplished little more than raids on farms in southern Honduras and northern Nicaragua.