MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Having fought its way to the peace table, Nicaragua's rebel movement appears stronger militarily but more vulnerable politically than at any other moment in its six-year war.
The leaders of an insurgency that gained the initiative in battle are now being put on the defensive in cease-fire negotiations that could end vital U.S. military aid without shaking Sandinista control of the government.
"We are better equipped for war than ever, but now there are rougher waters to navigate," Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, an exiled leader of the Nicaraguan Resistance, said in an interview in Costa Rica.
The peace agreement among Nicaragua and other Central American nations is stacked against the guerrillas these governments are fighting. It calls for cease-fires and an end to outside aid to armed rebels in exchange for democratic guarantees within existing constitutional orders.
Since signing the Aug. 7 accord, President Daniel Ortega has seemed intent on taking just enough steps toward compliance to satisfy the U.S. Congress. As a result, the White House has put off asking Congress for more Contra aid--this time for $270 million--at least until January.
In a sign of the confidence among Sandinista leaders that the aid may be doomed, Vice President Sergio Ramirez said recently that the Reagan Administration "is no longer the center of decisions about what happens in Central America."
The fate of the $270 million, and the insurgency itself, will hang on the outcome of indirect cease-fire talks that could start as early as this week.
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the mediator, received a truce proposal from the government Nov. 13 and one from the Nicaraguan Resistance on Wednesday. He is expected to announce the first steps of the negotiations Monday.
In one sense, the talks themselves represent a victory for the Contras, a tacit recognition of their legitimacy. This was won in a yearlong campaign by about 10,000 guerrillas who infiltrated throughout central Nicaragua from base camps in Honduras, kept pressure on the 85,000-man Sandinista army and punished the economy.
Although they failed to seize and hold a major town, the Contras offset the government's superior manpower and mobility in two ways:
They set up pockets of peasant support that enabled them to move freely in much of the countryside. And, with newly acquired portable Redeye missiles, they shot down at least a dozen Soviet-made helicopters operated by the Sandinistas, forcing the army to curtail air support for its counterinsurgency battalions.
In the coming cease-fire talks, the Sandinistas will seek what those battalions failed to accomplish--to corral the Contras. Their 11-point proposal would have the rebels move into three government-controlled truce zones and surrender their weapons by Jan. 5 in order to be eligible for amnesty.
The rebel cease-fire proposal calls for freezing the two armies' current positions for a year. It would condition rebel disarmament upon Sandinista compliance with all terms of the regional peace treaty.
Whether or not they get their way on these points, the Contras start from a disadvantage. After fighting since 1981 to overthrow the Sandinistas, they now find that the best they can hope for under the peace accord is freedom to take part in politics, access to an uncensored press and a promise of fair elections.
The Contras lack a political alliance inside the country. Their sympathizers are fragmented into more than a dozen parties and groups that spend much of their energy fighting each other. The return of such politically ambitious rebel figures as Adolfo Calero and Eden Pastora could just as easily compound those divisions as heal them.
Though the war and its severe economic hardships have made the Sandinistas unpopular, Ortega is so encouraged by the bickering among his foes that he offered last week to hold national elections earlier than scheduled in 1990.
If the cease-fire talks reach an impasse, the Contras' military gains of the past year will mean little in the way of leverage as long as the prospects for continued U.S. aid remain uncertain.
"We are fragile because we depend so much on the United States," said Alfonso Robelo, a Contra leader in Costa Rica. "Time is against us. We have only enough munitions for a few more months. Our pipeline is drying out."
Without U.S. aid, Sandinista officials say, the insurgency would disappear. Rebel leaders contend that some troops could survive inside the country and spoil hopes for peace and economic recovery. But this would not be enough, they admit, to force government concessions.
For the Contras to stand a better chance of new military aid, Cardinal Obando would have to pin full blame on the Sandinistas for stalling or blocking a cease-fire agreement, and his judgment would have to be seconded by President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, author of the peace accord.