NEW YORK — The articulate young president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, during a recent interview in his country, spelled out the problem the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua presents for Central Americans.
"They betrayed everyone--the whole world and the Nicaraguan people," he said. "They promised a new Nicaragua, not a second Cuba."
But a second Cuba, a totalitarian regime closely allied with the Soviet Union, is what many leaders in Central America fear they will deliver.
In Washington I spoke with senior Administration officials about the contras' prospects and heard many optimistic forecasts.
Yet during a recent visit to Central America--Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua--officials and leaders offered far bleaker appraisals of the contras' chances. The presidents of the region's four democracies, in a series of exclusive interviews, were unusually frank in expressing dismay over the situation.
The Sandinistas have built up a strong army, of about 62,000 men and women, with at least 57,000 more in the militia and active reserves. The Soviet Union and Cuba have provided advisers and weapons, including Mi24 Hind helicopter gunships that have proved so effective in Afghanistan against the moujahedeen.
For these and other reasons, Arias said, "I don't think the contras have a chance to win. If the purpose is to overthrow the Sandinista government, it is unlikely to happen. The contras don't have a charismatic leader, the Sandinistas are very powerful and they'll get more help from the Soviets."
President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, a man who speaks from some experience, told me: "You cannot impose (a liberation movement) from the outside, unless you invade. To get the people of any country to liberate itself, it must come from the inside. If ( contra leaders Arturo) Cruz and (Alfonso) Robelo convert themselves into leaders of their people, not just leaders of a military instrument, then the Sandinistas will have trouble."
Duarte said he advises the Nicaraguan rebel leaders that they "must win the hearts of the people inside and not depend much on what's coming from outside. The Sandinistas were in Managua. They were inside. They went up in the hills."
But Duarte's perspective seems to reveal the gap between the dangerous but feasible game of fighting old-style Central American dictatorships, which he played so well, and fighting a Soviet-supported state like Nicaragua, where it's difficult to go to the hills--because the helicopters follow.
Enrique Ballanos, probably the leading opposition leader inside Nicaragua, calls for international support for the contras. Much of Europe, especially Scandinavia, is giving money to the Sandinistas, rather than boycotting their regime. With only the United States behind them, Ballanos isn't optimistic. "The contras cannot win by themselves," he said. "It's too little too late. They need diplomatic and political support around the world. The Central Americans see no will in the United States. We've experienced the Bay of Pigs. You've left people stranded. You pull the rug out from under your friends."
U.S. allies in Central America are haunted by worries that the United States will let them down--"It's the ghost running around Central America," said Costa Rica's foreign minister, Rodrigo Madrigal Nieto.
A leading Honduran politician said that Central Americans have two options: either to hope for a U.S. invasion--"and frankly we only think such an invasion could come under Reagan"--or to look for political neutrality--"because you're not a reliable ally." Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are trying to be neutral, he said. "We must decide which way to go. In public as well as in private life, you must know who you're going to bed with. And we don't know."
Costa Rica, the oldest and strongest democracy in Central America, is following an official line of neutrality. Although the country allowed the Sandinistas to use it as a base when they were fighting dictator Anastasio Somoza, it will not do so for the contras. The Sandinista army is too imposing, and Costa Rica doesn't have an army.
Arias, having angered U.S. officials by making some ambivalent remarks about the contra program, was vigorous when he spoke with me in his office in denouncing the Sandinistas: "Every day the whole world is seeing how the Sandinistas are identifying more and more with the Soviet Bloc. Look at (Nicaraguan President) Daniel Ortega with (Moammar) Kadafi and Fidel Castro (at the recent Nonaligned Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe) . . . . If there was any hope that Nicaragua could become nonaligned, not totally identified or committed with the Marxist world, there is no doubt now."