WASHINGTON — Using Vice President Dan Quayle as its messenger, the Bush Administration has bluntly informed Nicaragua's Contras that they have no choice but to disband their forces, leaving some of the rebel commanders openly bitter.
Quayle, whom the Contras viewed as their staunchest ally in the Administration, told three rebel chiefs as recently as Friday that their troops must turn in their weapons to a U.N. peacekeeping force at the same time that the new, U.S.-backed government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro begins reducing the size of the Sandinista army.
"Both have to go forward," Quayle said in an interview broadcast Saturday. "It's somewhat of a chicken-and-egg type of situation. . . . Right now, many of (the Contras) feel that their lives are in jeopardy, and therefore they're not going to lay their arms down immediately. But they will eventually."
U.S. officials said the Contra commanders agreed to the Administration plan, under which their estimated 12,000 troops would return to Nicaragua for resettlement as farmers. But the rebels were clearly unhappy and complained that they were offered no alternatives.
"What I carry back (to the troops) is . . . a demobilization in exchange for nothing," Contra commander Israel Galeano told reporters after separate meetings with Quayle and State Department officials.
Another Contra official said that the rebels presented Quayle with a letter demanding that the Administration allow the troops and their families to resettle in the United States. "There was no answer," he said. "All they said was: 'Demobilize.' "
Quayle and other U.S. officials said they want the Contras to disband as part of a process under which the army of the leftist Sandinista regime will submit to Chamorro's authority and demobilize at least half of its estimated 70,000 troops.
The Contras object that the plan will force them to demobilize entirely while leaving substantial Sandinista forces in place.
"What we need is total demilitarization," said Galeano, who fights under the nom de guerre Comandante Franklin.
He indicated that he still wants the Sandinista army to disband first. "Our arms will be exchanged when democracy, liberty and justice exist for all in Nicaragua," he said. "It depends on the Sandinistas and not on us."
On the other side of the decade-long guerrilla war, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has demanded that the Contras demobilize first, before Chamorro's scheduled inauguration April 25.
Quayle said he told Ortega, in a meeting last week during the vice president's tour of South America, that both armies should begin demobilizing before the inauguration.
"Both sides need to be demilitarized and demobilized," the vice president said Saturday in an interview with Cable News Network. "The sooner that happens, and the sooner the peace process gets under way, the better. And as I told Daniel Ortega, let's not wait until April 25 to begin the peace process. I reiterated that (on Friday) to the Contra leaders. Let's begin now.
"Hopefully, we'll get the United Nations forces in there, and then the United Nations forces can talk to both sides," he said.
At the Administration's request, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar is organizing a 1,100-man peacekeeping force with troops from Canada, Spain, Venezuela and West Germany.
A U.S. official who participated in last week's meetings said the U.N. force will collect the Contras' weapons and then attempt to assure their safety in Nicaragua.
"There might be enclaves (for the rebels inside Nicaragua) which could be patrolled by (the U.N. force)," he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Contra officials said that hundreds of the rebels have already crossed back into northern Nicaragua from their camps in Honduras, a factor that could complicate any demobilization effort.
Enrique Bermudez, a former Contra military commander who was ousted by Franklin, said in a telephone interview from Miami he believes that the process is "on the right track." He said international guarantees are the way to "get the confidence of our people. You can't just drop them in Nicaragua without shelter, food and tools to make a living."
Another former Contra leader, Adolfo Calero, said the rebels are counting on receiving 10% of the $300-million aid package for Nicaragua requested by the Bush Administration to help in their resettlement.
"They also want recognition for their part in returning Nicaragua to democracy," Calero said.
In an attempt to offer them that recognition, Quayle paid public tribute to the rebels' "valiant efforts" in fighting for nearly a decade, and gave them credit for forcing Ortega to hold the election that brought Chamorro to victory last month.