SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Arturo Cruz lay back in his hotel room, chain-smoking Marlboros after midnight and reveling in a new-found sense of freedom. His knit tie and pistol lay on the bed nearby, discarded like the title he had just renounced.
The former Sandinista junta member and former Nicaraguan opposition presidential candidate became a former contra leader Tuesday morning when his resignation from the directorate of the U.S.-backed United Nicaraguan Opposition alliance went into effect.
"This is it. I'm starting a new life," Cruz said. "All decisions are affected by a combination of factors. I want to organize my life. I want to be free, but most important are the political issues."
Cruz, who had three times threatened to quit the contras because of what he called the movement's domination by conservatives, nevertheless caught U.S. officials and the rest of the rebel leadership by surprise with his resignation. In a conversation with two reporters in the early hours Tuesday, Cruz said he had consulted only his wife, children and a few close friends before making the decision that could determine the future of the contra movement.
In the eyes of U.S. congressmen, Cruz was the most politically influential member of the directorate. Other contra officials conceded Tuesday that Cruz's resignation, on top of the Iran-contra scandal, dims their prospects for winning an additional $105 million in military and economic aid from Congress for next year.
The rebels created the United Nicaraguan Opposition, called UNO, two years ago at the urging of U.S. officials to demonstrate the guerrilla movement's political unity and win funding from Congress.
"You may say that UNO is gone now," said contra politician Alfredo Cesar after Cruz's resignation. "First (Adolfo) Calero and now Cruz."
Pressure From U.S.
Calero, the ultraconservative head of the armed Nicaraguan Democratic Force, resigned from the UNO directorate last month under pressure from U.S. officials to try to stave off Cruz's resignation. When Calero left, the more moderate Cruz announced that he would stay on for three months to push for reforms, including civilian leadership of the armed rebels and UNO control over the contras' finances.
But on Monday, Cruz suddenly turned in his resignation letter to two newspapers without warning U.S. officials or the other members of the UNO directorate.
In the interview, Cruz indicated that he had allowed associates to talk him out of resigning on previous occasions for the good of the contra movement.
"I am a man of instincts, and I have ignored my instincts for the last few years," Cruz said. "That has been bad for me."
Changes Too Gradual
In his resignation letter and in person, Cruz said that over the last few weeks, it became clear to him that neither U.S. officials nor the other rebel officials had the political will to overhaul the contra leadership. Instead, he said, they were pushing for what he considered gradual changes.
"I did not want to be responsible for cosmetic reforms," Cruz said.
When Cruz indicated that he might resign last month, UNO directorate member Alfonso Robelo sided with him in calling for the reforms. The two insisted that Calero and the armed Nicaraguan Democratic Force had too much power in the rebel movement.
Rebels close to Cruz said, however, that during negotiations in the last couple of weeks, Robelo would not join Cruz in a move to oust the Nicaraguan Democratic Force's conservative military chief Enrique Bermudez, a member of Nicaragua's feared National Guard during the regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Cruz also had wanted to suspend the UNO's assembly, which he felt was dominated by members of groups allied to Calero and Bermudez. But Robelo surprised Cruz by voting with Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Jr., Calero's replacement on the three-man junta, to work with the existing assembly and to expand it.
'The Last Straw'
"I think when Robelo changed his position on the assembly, that was the last straw for Cruz," said Cesar, who is head of the Southern Opposition Bloc, a Costa Rica-based contra group that had refused to join UNO because of the latter's domination by the Nicaraguan Democratic Force.
Cruz said that in his absence, UNO must form a new, expanded leadership that insists on the reforms he has advocated, and he stressed that the directorate must be independent from the United States. In his resignation letter, Cruz charged that conservative factions in the U.S. government had helped to isolate the moderates.
The CIA has been an ally to Calero and the Nicaraguan Democratic Force since the beginning of the contra war.
Asked if he would recommend that Congress continue to fund the contras, Cruz said, "I would not give a blank check to anyone, but I think a reformed cause needs to be supported."
Cruz, a bespectacled economist and one-time banker, served on the Sandinista junta from May, 1980, to March, 1981, after the revolution that toppled Somoza in 1979, and then as ambassador to the United States until he resigned at the end of 1981, charging that the Sandinistas have abandoned their democratic goals.
He was the internal opposition's presidential candidate in 1984, until the coalition supporting him pulled out, apparently in part because of U.S. pressure. In exile, Cruz first worked with another Sandinista dissident, Eden Pastora, and then with UNO.
Now, Cruz says, he just wants to be a banking consultant, to lecture, write a book and dabble with his political party in exile, Democratic Action.
"I have dreamed of coming home from work and watching the news on television," Cruz said, "of seeing news of Nicaragua and I am not in the debate."