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Haunting Developments

December 08, 1985

Recent developments in the guerrilla war in Nicaragua underscore the fallacious reasoning behind the "humanitarian" aid that the Reagan Administration is sending to anti-government rebels there, the so-called contras. The developments also illustrate the danger of sending the rebels any more aid.

When Administration officials asked Congress earlier this year for $27 million to help the contras, they said that the money would be used to purchase non-lethal items like food, medicine and clothing. But last week Times correspondent Doyle McManus reported that the Administration had broadened the definition of humanitarian aid to include transportation equipment, like trucks and helicopters, that carry not just food but also guns and ammunition. Congress was being naive if it expected anything different. The Administration is so determined to wage its covert war against the Sandinistas that it will exploit any opening given.

Battlefield reports from Nicaragua indicate that the contras are using the renewed U.S. aid to escalate their war against the Managua government. But the Sandinistas and their Cuban allies are responding with an escalation of their own. That is why no one should take any encouragement from an incident last week in which the contras downed a Soviet helicopter with a hand-carried missile. While the downing proves that the contras have new firepower and know how to use it, the introduction of light anti-aircraft missiles into Central America could come back to haunt the United States. So could the fact that the downed helicopter was piloted by Cubans, who are now apparently playing a more active role in advising the Sandinista army.

The helicopter downing has upped the ante in Central America. It may not be long before the Sandinistas respond by obtaining the high- performance fighters that they want for their air force. And their allies among the rebels fighting the government in El Salvador may soon find it easier to get hand-carried missiles of their own to use against the helicopters with which the United States has supplied the Salvadoran army.

No good can come from this escalation in Nicaragua. New armaments and bloodier tactics will only prolong a conflict that the contras cannot win. Nothing short of a U.S. invasion will oust the Sandinistas, and that is not feasible or acceptable. Instead of asking for even more aid for the contras, the Administration should reconsider its refusal to cooperate with the Contadora Group--Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama--in their effort to stop the fighting in Central America through negotiations. The most effective way to contain the Sandinista revolution is not through U.S. military power, but with the diplomatic leverage and moral suasion that a Contadora peace treaty would give Nicaragua's Latin American neighbors.

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