WASHINGTON — The commander of the main rebel force fighting Nicaragua's leftist regime emerged from the jungles Tuesday to lobby Congress for renewed aid for his struggle--only to run into firm opposition, some of it focused on him.
"Everybody seems to be against us," lamented Enrique Bermudez, military chief of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN). "I've been surprised at how hard this fight is going to be."
Bermudez's sudden appearance in Washington, after years of maintaining a deliberately low profile in the rugged hills of Central America, was only the newest stage of a large-scale, unusual lobbying campaign carried on by both sides in Nicaragua's guerrilla war.
Both sides are convinced that Congress' forthcoming debate on U.S. aid to the rebels, known as contras, will be crucial to their future. Virtual battalions of Nicaraguans have been marching through the halls of Congress--from Bermudez and his fellow Democratic Force commanders, including a jungle fighter traveling under the alias of "Little Tiger," to rival rebel leader Eden Pastora, known as "Commander Zero," as well as Sandinista officials. And there has been an assortment of American supporters on both sides.
So far, the contras and their backers have found, to their dismay, that the Democratic congressmen who have blocked the Reagan Administration's previous pleas for aid seem to be firm in their opposition.
Bermudez came to Washington from his camp on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border at the suggestion of State Department officials and his own aides to demonstrate, as he noted wryly, "that I don't eat babies."
The wiry commander, a former colonel in Nicaragua's pre-revolutionary National Guard, has been accused by opponents of being a follower of Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza, the rightist dictator overthrown in 1979.
'Fighting for Democracy'
In a series of almost non-stop meetings with both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill and in a rare news conference, Bermudez denied that charge. "I am a professional soldier," he said, "and I am fighting for democracy."
But he made little apparent headway on Capitol Hill. Most senators and congressmen, he said, left him to meet with their aides. Bermudez saw an aide to Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), only to be told bluntly, "You're not getting the money."
"I tried to say it in a non-confrontational way," the aide, Brent Budowsky, said.
Advancing even further into the lion's den, Bermudez met with an assistant to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the firmest opponents of aid to the contras. There, he ran into a frontal attack.
"You are the biggest single obstacle to aid there is, colonel," Kennedy aide Gregory Craig told him. "The best thing you can do is resign."
Oddly enough, the rightist rebel and the liberal aide hit it off. "A lot of people think I should resign, but Mr. Craig was the first to tell me directly," Bermudez said. "I respect that."
Craig remarked: "I liked Col. Bermudez. I'd go to war with him, if it were a war I agreed with. But I don't think he's going to change any minds. It's probably too late for that--too many people have taken strong positions already."
Provisional Regime OK
In his news conference, his first since 1982, Bermudez said he would be willing to attempt to seize and hold territory inside Nicaragua for a rebel provisional government--if that would make Congress more disposed toward approving aid.
"It would be costly for us, but to get the funds, we'll pay that price," he said to the National Press Club.
Only minutes later, in a conference room down the hall, a private human rights group charged that Bermudez's rebels have tortured and murdered prisoners, attacked civilians and raped women.
The group, Americas Watch, said that both the contras and the Sandinista government have been guilty of abuses in the guerrilla war but that the conduct of government forces has improved.
Back on Capitol Hill, Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Latin America renewed their attack on the Administration's request for aid. Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), chairman of the panel, urged the Administration to discard the rebels and instead try "to bring more legitimate international pressure" on the Sandinistas.
But Langhorne A. Motley, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, responded that he sees no alternative to aiding the contras--although he added, "That does not mean we'll stop looking."