Now that the House of Representatives has repudiated President Reagan's bellicose policies toward Nicaragua by rejecting his request for $100 million for the contra rebels fighting that country's Sandinista government, the United States should start paying closer attention to the progress that Latin Americans are making toward settling the Central American crisis peacefully.
While the White House and Capitol Hill have been the focal points for discussions of Central America in recent weeks, things have been happening south of the border that could make the Washington debate moot. For example:
--The three-year effort by the Contadora Group--made up of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama--to mediate the conflicts in Central America and to draft a peace agreement for the five Central American nations has been given new energy through the formation of a support group of Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay. Meeting in Caraballeda, Venezuela, representatives all eight nations issued a declaration calling for negotiations between Nicaragua and the United States and the creation of a Central American parliament that would provide a forum for the region's leaders to discuss their mutual problems and differences.
--The Caraballeda declaration has been endorsed by all five Central American countries, and the newly elected president of Guatemala, Vinicio Cerezo, has agreed to host a summit meeting in May at which Central America's presidents can discuss the proposal for a regional parliament.
--Costa Rica's newly elected president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, initiated negotiations with the Sandinista government in Managua in an effort to ease tensions that have strained relations between the two countries. With the help of Contadora diplomats, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are trying to create an international commission to monitor their mutual border and prevent border incidents.
These are all indications that peace can be negotiated without escalating the violence. The Contadora Group is making progress. The forward movement will continue, however, only if the nations in the region enlarge on the flexibility that they have demonstrated among themselves in recent weeks. There is a particularly heavy burden on the government of Nicaragua to demonstrate with more than rhetoric its commitment to peaceful relations and to democracy.
Contadora Group leaders welcomed Thursday's vote in Congress against arms for the contras as a sign that the American public has not given up on negotiations. They hope that it will expedite negotiations, for they understand how close that vote was and how easily it could be reversed on April 15 if Managua is perceived as frustrating the peace effort.
The Senate, like the House, can encourage the Latin peace effort by opposing arms for the contras when the issue comes to a vote this week.
There has been progress along the path to a negotiated peace. The leaders of Central America, including those most recently elected, oppose U.S. military aid and support the Contadora process. It is they who understand the problems and can best resolve them. It is they whom the United States must respect if its real interest is the restoration of democracy and justice in those impoverished, troubled nations.