MIAMI - Years after their U.S.-backed war failed to dislodge the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, two former contra leaders are trying to undermine the government that replaced it.
Using contacts and know-how won in more than a decade of visits to the State Department and Capitol Hill, the ex-contras are helping to force a wedge between the Bush administration and Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, and raising doubts about Nicaragua's efforts to stabilize its society.
Aristides Sanchez, a contra founder and hard-liner living in Miami, and Bosco Matamoros, the rebels' spokesman in Washington during the war, are fueling impatience with Chamorro on Capitol Hill, funneling their complaints through the office of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
In recent weeks, the pair have played a role in:
-- Freezing $116 million in U.S. aid to Nicaragua, a block imposed by Helms to stress what they say is inaction toward resolving property disputes and curbing violence against disarmed contras;
-- Scuttling the nomination of Joseph Sullivan as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, with allegations that he secretly financed Chamorro's campaign by distributing CIA money to contras returning home.
-- Heightening concern about corruption in the Chamorro government, including an allegation that her campaign team siphoned money allocated for treating contras wounded in the war.
Both men charge that Chamorro forsook her anti-Sandinista base and failed to purge the leftists' influence from government and the security forces. In February 1990, Chamorro defeated President Daniel Ortega at the polls, but, they say, she has not dared to confront him or army chief Humberto Ortega since.
Sanchez calls Chamorro's "co-government" strategy "completely disastrous" and blames the Bush administration for endorsing it as a way to ease the Sandinistas from power.
"They were of the opinion that if the Ortegas objected to Chamorro's government, there would be a blood bath," Sanchez said. "It was an opportunity for great reforms."
Critics of Sanchez and Matamoros call them embittered losers. Such hard-liners never liked Chamorro's message of reconciliation, said Nicaragua's ambassador to the United States, Ernesto Palazio; they wanted a definitive victory over the Sandinistas.
"This is the last attack from the extreme right in Nicaragua," said Palazio, who worked closely with both men as a contra official before accepting a post under Chamorro. He added: "They have very questionable democratic credentials."
Bernard Aronson, the Bush administration's Latin American policy chief, is equally dismissive of the former contras.
The contras, in turn, blame Aronson, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, for abruptly disbanding their forces in the rush to a political end to the war. With Aronson's endorsement, they said, contra money was diverted to Chamorro in 1989.
They ruefully recall a meeting in Aronson's office in the spring of that year, when a team of U.S. diplomats told the contra leadership: the war is over, go home and defeat the Sandinistas at the polls. A CIA agent, whom they knew as Tim Sorel, warned: "Whoever doesn't go to Managua will end up like the dinosaurs. They will vanish like an extinct species."
Within months of that meeting, the State Department set in motion a covert plan thatchanneled $530,000 in CIA money to 95 Nicaraguan contras or exiles despite congressional restrictions on contra financing. Sanchez and Matamoros, who rejected the money, said it was secretly used to promote Chamorro's candidacy.
Aronson denied that the United States directly helped Chamorro or favored her nomination, or even that the "dinosaur meeting" ever took place. An inquiry by the State Department's Inspector General this summer found no apparent illegality among U.S. officials.
But Sanchez and Matamoros raised sufficient doubts about the covert financing operation that Helms and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., blocked the nomination of Sullivan, an Aronson deputy, as ambassador to Nicaragua. After a showdown of several months, the administration backed down: Sullivan's name was quietly withdrawn.
The contras' alliance with Helms - perhaps the most vociferous Sandinista critic in Congress - proved fruitful. Helms' Latin American policy aide, Deborah De Moss, relied on vast contra contacts to compile a blistering report on the extent of Sandinista influence over Chamorro's government.
Again, the administration blinked. With Helms' support seen as crucial to Bush's electoral chances with the Republican right, the State Department sprang to action.
Hours after the Senate report was released, a U.S. envoy was on a plane to Managua to convey Washington's concern, and a State Department spokesman said the "far-reaching and disturbing" conclusions were to be taken seriously. Since then, the administration has not dared to override objections by Helms and release $116 million in economic aid to Nicaragua.
The aid freeze, in effect since June, has forced Chamorro to raise taxes and threatened to undermine her economic stabilization program. The latest attack by Matamoros and Sanchez, operating under the name of the Nicaraguan Democratic Opposition, was that her campaign had paid its bills from a fund to treat wounded contras.