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Slow but Unsure

August 23, 1987

Central America's quest for peace on its own terms remains alive, despite efforts to scuttle it. And each day whittles away the hours left for President Reagan to choose, once and for all, between war and peace in Nicaragua.

Moscow apparently has told the Sandinistas that they are getting all the Soviet help they deserve, which would seem to dilute the argument that Nicaragua is a Soviet beachhead. The President continues to justify aid to Nicaragua's guerrillas, the contras , on the ground that the Sandinistas will not sue for peace except under pressure. But Nicaragua's neighbors are trying to work out the details of a plan drafted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez that would mean a clean break with guerrilla raids.

There is a further question as to whether the guerrillas can put more pressure on Nicaragua than it already feels from an economy that is a near-disaster--partly because Sandinista leadership is inept, partly because of trade boycotts and largely because Nicaragua was a poor nation to begin with in which prosperity for most people was poverty on some higher level.

Recent polls show that a surge in support for Reagan policies in Nicaragua as a result of testimony during the Iran- contra hearings is fading. Disclosures that in 1984 the Administration sought help in Nicaragua from South Africa, despite that nation's abysmal human-rights record, are bound to turn even more Americans away from the President's policy.

Time, it seems to us, is on the side of peace in Central America, if only because negotiations among Nicaragua's neighbors on a peace plan of their own devising focus attention on the important questions there. Is the U.S. commitment to the contras a matter of politics and to peace a matter of conscience, or is it the other way around? It can't be both.

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