TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Nicaraguan rebels have set two short-term goals to increase their chances of overthrowing the Sandinista government: to nearly double their forces by the end of the year and to persuade the U.S. Congress to supply them with weapons.
Rebel leaders say the first goal is within reach--that they have 17,000 men under arms and expect to build the force to 30,000.
They concede, though, that getting Congress to provide funding for military aid will be more difficult. Still, they are working to erode the lawmakers' resistance by focusing on anti-communism as the foundation of their cause.
Congress recently approved $27 million in so-called non-lethal aid for the rebels. A vote on additional assistance is expected in October.
"Our priority is to grow," Indalecio Rodriguez, a civilian leader of the largest rebel group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, said the other day. "We will soon be a national army."
Aristides Sanchez, another official of the group, said, "We have all the human material to expand."
The Nicaraguan Democratic Force, or FDN, as it is called after its initials in Spanish, is by far the largest of the groups known collectively as \o7 contras\f7 , for counterrevolutionaries. The FDN has long operated out of bases on the Honduran side of the border with Nicaragua.
Projections for growth are based on several factors. For one thing, contra leaders expect that their continued ability to put troops in the field will attract recruits.
And they look with relish on the Sandinista government's plan to renew the Nicaraguan military draft. Draft evasion has been a significant source of recruits for the contras.
Finally, disagreements between the Sandinistas and the Roman Catholic Church are counted on to reduce popular acceptance of the Nicaraguan government.
"How have we grown if we don't have popularity?" Rodriguez said to a reporter. "Why do you think the Sandinistas worry about Cardinal Obando?"
He referred to Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua, a vocal critic of the Sandinistas who was recently elevated to the rank of cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
In their propaganda, the contras play heavily on religious feelings. Posters meant for distribution inside Nicaragua show a smiling Jesus labeled "Liberator." Another says, "The Pope Is With Us."
Nearly doubling the size of the contra force would raise questions of supply. To support that number of men would require increased contributions of private funds--$15 million to $25 million was given in the last year, the contras say--and more U.S. aid than the contras have been able to count on in the past. And both sources of money depend to a great degree on how the political wind is blowing.
Although contra leaders insist that their movement can survive without Congress' help, recent developments suggest that lack of direct U.S. help cripples the rebels. While Congress was debating assistance for the contras earlier this year, nearly all the rebels took refuge in Honduras, conserving ammunition while their leaders sought other sources of aid.
"We ask that Congress cover our war needs, not just humanitarian," said Sanchez, who handles liaison between contra civilian and military leaders. "We count on having military aid. We completely identify with U.S. interests in Central America."
He suggested that if the contras fail to overthrow the Sandinista government, Nicaragua will be dominated by the Soviet Union. "If we lose," he said, "the Soviets will be in Nicaragua forever."
This argument has been effective in the past. It was after Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega visited Moscow, highlighting his government's ties with the Soviet Union, that Congress approved the $27 million for the contras.
Anti-Communist rhetoric also helps obscure a public relations problem the contras have had with some members of Congress. The Democratic Force has found it difficult to shed its image as a group of rightists who want to restore the kind of autocracy that Nicaragua had under Anastasio Somoza, the dictator deposed by the Sandinista revolution.
To broaden the political appeal of their insurgency, contra leaders have joined with exiles who are considered more moderate, notably Arturo Cruz, a banker and former Nicaraguan ambassador to Washington, and Alfonso Robelo, a former member of the revolutionary government that followed Somoza's ouster.
Cruz and Robelo, together with Democratic Force leader Adolfo Calero, head a new alliance called the Nicaraguan Opposition Union, or UNO. This is now regarded as the top contra decision-making group.
Nonetheless, liaison official Sanchez made it clear that the Democratic Force maintains its autonomy. "No one tells the FDN what to do," he said, "not UNO, not anyone."
Embarrassing reports of battlefield brutality have also plagued the contras in their effort to win Congress' support. It remains to be seen if a new rebel code of conduct will end the executions that are said to have marked contra operations.
The contras say they now concentrate on attacking civilian economic targets. Destruction of food, bridges and power facilities, they say, weakens the ability of the Sandinistas to wage war.