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'Foot-Dragging' on Latin Peace Charged

September 03, 1987|DOYLE McMANUS | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Jim Wright charged Wednesday that the Reagan Administration is "dragging its feet" on the Central American peace effort and may be working to block the peace plan signed by five Central American presidents last month.

The Texas Democrat said he has seen "signs of good faith" from both Nicaragua's leftist government and the U.S.-backed rebels who are fighting to overthrow the regime, but not from the Reagan Administration.

"It all adds up to a conclusion which I am reluctant to make--that the Administration is trying to keep this from happening," the Speaker said in a telephone interview from his Texas office. It is "dragging its feet."

"That's an appalling thing, and would be a violation of the agreement that I have with the President," he added. Wright and Reagan negotiated a peace proposal similar to the Central Americans' last month, and both agreed to press for a diplomatic solution to the region's wars.

Some U.S. officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified, partially agreed with Wright. "So far, the peace process has been a disaster from our standpoint," said one. "The Central Americans are swept up in a kind of euphoria, and they aren't dealing with the tough questions. So, yes, in that sense we're trying to slow things down."

In public, however, spokesmen insist that the Administration is being as helpful as possible to the Central Americans. "The U.S. policy is to try to make the agreement work and to strengthen it in any way possible," State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said last month.

The peace agreement, signed in Guatemala on Aug. 7, calls for a cease-fire in Central America's guerrilla wars by Nov. 7, prohibits all outside aid to rebel groups in the area and requires a restoration of civil liberties and democratic practices.

The Administration's original proposal called for a Sept. 30 cease-fire deadline and more stringent requirements for democratic reforms.

Against Military Aid

Wright said he believes that the Administration has encouraged Honduras, the closest U.S. ally in the region, to raise objections to parts of the Guatemala peace agreement.

He praised both the contra rebels and Nicaragua's Sandinista leaders for their flexibility and said he was disappointed that the Administration criticized the Managua government's appointment of a National Reconciliation Commission and other initial moves toward restoring civil liberties. The State Department dismissed the commission as "stacked."

"The fact that they've done these things ought to be applauded," Wright said. "We ought not be pouring cold water on it."

And he disagreed with the Administration's tentative plan to ask Congress for further military aid for the rebels that could be held in escrow if peace negotiations are under way. "If there is any further aid appropriated, it should be humanitarian aid," Wright said.

Wright also urged Reagan to take a more active role in arranging indirect cease-fire talks between the Nicaraguan government and the contras.

So far, the Sandinistas have insisted on direct negotiations with the United States. The Administration has insisted that the Sandinistas talk directly with the rebels instead.

Contra leaders have indicated that they would consider negotiating indirectly, through a third party. "It's very easy to solve this problem," Wright said. "I think if President Reagan and President (Oscar) Arias (of Costa Rica) weigh in on the side of any solution, it'll be done."

Wright said he has spent hours talking with both contra leaders and Sandinista government officials trying to keep the peace effort alive--an unusual role for a Speaker of the House, he acknowledged.

"I'm not trying to become secretary of state; I'm not trying to infringe on the job of the State Department," he said. "But I'm always being approached by these people who ask me if I can help."

Administration officials who are openly skeptical of the peace plan said they believe that Wright--whom they originally sought as an ally in Central American diplomacy--is giving too much credit to the Nicaraguan regime.

"Anybody who thinks the Sandinistas are operating in good faith hasn't been paying attention," charged one.

But they admitted that the Speaker has succeeded in pushing the Central American peace plan forward at the expense of their own plans for increased military aid to the contras.

"Jim Wright doesn't have any answers that we like, but he sure is holding all the cards," a State Department official said ruefully. "We are dead in the water. The only thing that's going to save our policy is if the Sandinistas make a terrible blunder."

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