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CENTRAL AMERICA BY CENTRAL AMERICANS : Baedeker Covering a Chaotic Region

August 16, 1987|Wayne S. Smith | Wayne S. Smith, adjunct professor of Latin American Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is author of "The Closest of Enemies," a first-person account of U.S.-Cuban relations since 1957.

WASHINGTON — With several new Nicaragua peace initiatives now added to the potpourri of guerrilla groups, conflictive governments and previous diplomatic efforts in Central America, it has become even more difficult to tell the players without a program. Here, then, is a sort of who's who and what's what of the region's people and places:

-- The Reagan Administration. The Administration says its objective in Central America is to assure democratic government, but it has operated on the assumption that it must get rid of the Sandinista government to do that and also to prevent the consolidation of a Soviet foothold on the Central American land mass. Since its aim has been to bring down the Sandinistas rather than deal with them, the Administration had been unwilling to cooperate with diplomatic efforts such as the Contadora process--which addressed all major U.S. concerns and those of the Central American countries but left the Sandinistas in power.

The Administration's policy instrument has been the contras , a guerrilla force of about 15,000 men bitterly opposed to the Sandinista government. Even Administration spokesmen acknowledge the contras do not have the capability to defeat the Sandinistas. The argument, rather, has been that they exert military pressure on the government and so are vital to bringing about any solution. Opponents of contra aid, however, point out that such pressure leads nowhere unless the Administration is prepared to negotiate, which until now it has not been.

-- The Contadora Process. An effort at comprehensive regional negotiations launched in 1983 by the presidents of Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Colombia. The final draft of a proposed Contadora treaty, presented in June, 1986, provided almost everything the United States wanted: prohibition of foreign bases, withdrawal of foreign military personnel, termination of any aid one country might be giving to guerrillas in another and democratization. It also provided for a verification process to monitor compliance. It did not, however, call for the Sandinistas to step down.

-- The Arias Plan. A peace plan presented by Costa Rica President Oscar Arias Sanchez early this year in an effort to salvage a diplomatic solution after the Contadora process broke down. Less comprehensive than the Contadora effort, it called for a cease-fire, termination of all aid to guerrillas, national reconciliation, democratization and limits on military establishments--but did not prohibit foreign bases or call for withdrawal of foreign military personnel. The Arias plan was more acceptable to Central American governments because it was perceived as a solution of their own rather than as one imposed upon them by extra-regional powers. The Contadora governments also embraced it as an intermediate step toward the broader treaty they hoped eventually to put in place.

For the Reagan Administration, however, the Arias plan was even less acceptable than Contadora, for it did not specifically address Nicaragua's military ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Administration spokesmen indicated weeks ago that the United States would not halt contra aid as called for by the Arias proposal and, on July 9, U.S. Special Envoy Philip C. Habib (who resigned of Friday) told a congressional committee that the Central Americans certainly would not sign anything without prior U.S. endorsement. The Arias Plan therefore seemed destined to founder on the same rock of U.S. non-cooperation as the Contadora effort had.

-- The Reagan-Wright Plan. Meanwhile, however, the Reagan Administration figured out that Congress was unlikely to approve more aid to the contras unless it gave diplomacy a try--or at least appeared to do so. The White House thus signaled its interest in a peace plan to Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.), the influential Speaker of the House. Many Democrats believed this was only another ploy, a feint at diplomacy which the Administration would make certain failed and then could point to as proof that there was no alternative to renewed contra aid. If that was the Administration's intention, it did not work, for Wright immediately seized the initiative and drafted a plan for the first time committing the United States to halt aid to the contras in return for steps on Nicaragua's part.

Then influential conservatives personally lobbied the President and senior officials talked Thursday about asking Congress for stopgap contra funding . But by Friday the Administration spokesmen affirmed that it would not seek any aid before Sept. 30.

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