SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Nicaraguan rebel leaders, eagerly anticipating the delivery of $100 million in U.S. aid, are proposing aggressive military and political campaigns in the coming months to improve their chances of toppling the leftist Sandinista government in Managua.
Rebel leaders say they face a relentless countdown during which they must produce results both on the battlefield and in the minds of citizens inside Nicaragua. The deadline for success: the 1988 exit from office of President Reagan, who has fought for and won military assistance for the rebels from a reluctant U.S. Congress.
The uncertainty of finding an equally staunch ally among the possible successors to Reagan is lending an air of desperation to the rebel plans.
"The next months, the next year are key," said Alfonso Robelo, one of three directors of the United Nicaraguan Opposition, the umbrella rebel organization. "Who knows what will follow Reagan?"
U.S. Military Trainers
The Congress recently approved $100 million in military and other aid to the rebels, who are widely known as contras. Also, after the lifting of a two-year congressional prohibition, the CIA will participate in management of the war. And, for the first time, U.S. military trainers will instruct the contras in warfare.
The infusion of new funds, direct American management and military training will put the contras in a put-up-or-shut-up situation, Robelo said. The Reagan Administration may seek more aid from Congress next year, but without significant improvement in the contras' military position, such aid may be difficult to obtain.
"We must reactivate our military force and show results," he declared.
On the battlefield, reactivation means an increase in forces actively fighting the Sandinista army and progress beyond the hit-and-run ambush tactics and sporadic mine-laying that characterized the last two years of contras military activity, Robelo said.
Rebel Forces to Grow
In recent months, about 6,500 rebel troops have been fighting inside Nicaragua, Robelo said. With the aid, the number will increase to 15,000, he added.
"All this will send a message that we are a force inside the country equivalent to the Sandinistas," Robelo declared. "We then expect to pick up internal Nicaraguan support."
In coming months, the rebels plan to step up attacks on the Sandinista helicopter fleet and attempt to cut major highways through sabotage and harassment.
The Sandinistas' Soviet-made helicopters have given the Marxist-led government the upper hand in the guerrilla war. The rebels hope to reduce the advantage by acquiring portable surface-to-air missiles.
The contras will also try to roust Sandinista forces from towns and cities. Occupying towns would be temporary only, Robelo said, and he denied that the contras have made seizing and holding a definite piece of Nicaraguan territory a priority.
Such a seizure has been long discussed by U.S. and contras strategists as a means to permit the installation of a provisional government based inside Nicaragua. Presumably, the Reagan Administration could then recognize the provisional regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua and break relations with the Sandinistas.
"Taking territory is not as important as creating the image that we are in Nicaragua to stay," Robelo asserted. "We have to do things that the Sandinistas cannot ignore or write off as a mere nuisance. We must give the people the vision of an alternative to the Sandinistas."
Lack of Capability
There are some doubts as to the contras' military chances, even with the new U.S. aid. "They don't have the capability of defeating the Sandinista army," a Honduran official said last month. "We believe that with the $100 million, nothing will be accomplished." Honduras is the main base for the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, largest of the contras' military contingents.
The contras also plan a political offensive among Nicaraguan exiles in the coming months. In part, the political moves will attempt to counter Sandinista claims that the contras represent a restoration of the rightist dictatorship overthrown in 1979.
The campaign will center on meetings of an exile legislative assembly made up of various contras factions and other Nicaraguan political groups abroad.
Nov. 20 Meeting
The first meeting of the 28-member assembly is scheduled for Nov. 20 here in San Jose, rebel sources said. The assembly is expected to formulate a sort of bill of rights for Nicaraguans as its primary official act.
Then, the assembly is expected to write a government platform that would be put in effect in the event of a contras victory. Finally, the assembly is to take up touchy issues of property ownership, amnesty and justice under a post-Sandinista regime.