ALONG THE HONDURAN-NICARAGUAN BORDER — Contra commander Enrique Bermudez, usually a cool and measured military man, exploded in anger last week over a Central American peace plan that aims for a cease-fire, amnesty and democratic reform in Nicaragua by Nov. 7.
"Amnesty? The ones who need amnesty are (Interior Minister) Tomas Borge and (President) Daniel Ortega," Bermudez nearly shouted. "There will be democracy in Nicaragua when I can present a case and witnesses against them in court for the crimes they committed, for destroying the economy."
'Fought for My Country'
Bermudez pounded his fist on the table at a secret, rebel supply center. "I haven't committed a crime. I fought for my country." Bermudez's uncustomary anger was a sign that the peace plan, signed by the five Central American presidents in Guatemala on Aug. 7, has put the contras on the defensive, and cast doubt on new U.S. funding for the rightist rebels that the contras had felt confident about months ago.
Bermudez said the next few months are "critical" to the survival of his U.S.-backed army fighting to oust the Marxist-led Sandinista government. "We are subject to the swing of the pendulum in Congress."
Contra leaders and their U.S. advisers are concerned that the Managua government has gained the political initiative through the plan. They do not believe the Sandinistas will fulfill the terms of the peace accord, which has no sanctions for noncompliance.
"The Sandinistas are going to create the perception that they have taken steps toward democratizing Nicaragua, and we run the risk that those who are against further aid will use that as an argument to stop the aid," Bermudez said.
Bermudez granted a lengthy interview to three reporters who visited a rebel base on the condition that its location not be revealed. The base is nearly dismantled, and several smaller camps have been established to the east, along the Coco River, since the bulk of the contras infiltrated into Nicaragua earlier this year.
During the two-hour interview, Bermudez also said that:
-- He wished he had had "more power in decision-making and more freedom of action" with the $100 million in U.S. aid for the contras that Congress approved last year. The CIA has directed procurement, training and other areas of the guerrilla war.
-- Because of his background as a national guardsman under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Bermudez was prevented by U.S. officials from becoming a combined political and military leader, as was needed to unify anti-Sandinista forces. "I was (accused of being) 'the Somocista, the one who committed genocide,' but over the years I converted this organization into an important factor where others failed."
A Sullied Reputation
-- Contra infighting contributed to a lack of broad support for the rebels, and further sullied Bermudez's reputation. "From 1983 to 1986, there was a campaign against me from rival groups, many of whom are now in the resistance."
The 54-year-old military chief has emerged as a more visible contra leader in recent months, in part because he has outlasted several political leaders and several efforts by the United States to rename and restructure the contra organization to make it more appealing to Congress. Last month, Bermudez was invited to Los Angeles along with the current contra directorate to meet with President Reagan for the first time.
The contras asked Reagan to push for approval of non-lethal aid now and for military aid to be put into an escrow account to be released if the peace plan falls apart. House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), who has accused the Reagan Administration of "dragging its feet" on the peace plan, said he opposes the escrow idea.
The plan prohibits all outside aid to rebel groups in the region after Nov. 7.
Bermudez said he believes the Sandinistas signed the Central American peace plan because they were frightened by a less favorable bipartisan plan offered by Reagan and Wright at the same time.
Use of an Intermediary
Wright has since been urging the contra leadership and the Sandinistas to negotiate a cease-fire agreement under the Central American plan, using an intermediary.
Contra political leaders have indicated a willingness to negotiate through a committee of Central Americans selected by the region's foreign ministers, but Bermudez insisted that was out of the question.
"Our destiny is in our hands. We are not going to put it in the hands of intermediaries," Bermudez said.
Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega also discounted mediation, and described a cease-fire as simply a transition for rebels who want to accept amnesty. The Sandinista government's position is that the contras are a mercenary army of the United States and that the Sandinistas will only negotiate with the U.S. government.
"This is not a problem between Nicaragua and that criminal Enrique Bermudez," President Daniel Ortega said last week. "This is a problem between Nicaragua and the United States."