WASHINGTON — President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, under growing pressure to open cease-fire talks with U.S.-backed contras or lose his image as a peacemaker, appears likely to agree soon to negotiate through an intermediary with the rebels' political leaders, U.S. and Central American officials now say.
An agreement, which one Latin diplomat said may come "in a matter of hours or days," would give crucial momentum to the five-nation peace plan signed in August, which calls for negotiated cease-fires in regional guerrilla wars on Nov. 7.
It also would net a rare public relations coup for the contras, cast by Ortega as U.S. puppets who want more military aid while Nicaragua diligently pursues peace.
Rebel Leaders Plan Visit
The rebels' political directorate said Thursday that three of its six members will fly uninvited to Managua to demand face-to-face truce talks with Ortega. Ortega's refusal would mark him as the only Central American president to reject talks with the leaders of an internal insurgency.
The Nicaraguan president's first reaction to the contra leaders' unwelcome visit--a threat to throw them in jail--left even some of the rebels' U.S. critics unimpressed.
"Ortega's under a lot of pressure now to demonstrate he's making a reasonable effort" to comply with the Central American peace plan, one Democratic congressional official said, "and a flat-out refusal to talk to someone isn't making a reasonable effort."
The regional peace plan signed by Nicaragua and its four neighbors Aug. 7 pledges the governments "to take all the necessary actions in order to achieve an effective cease-fire" in their internal wars within 90 days. It also requires them to initiate "democratic processes of participation" in their political systems.
Ortega has seized on the democratic reforms, reopening a closed newspaper and radio station and lifting some curbs on rallies and protests to convince critics that he is loosening police-state controls.
But he has refused to talk to the contras' six political leaders--all Nicaraguan exiles financed by the Americans--saying that a cease-fire must be struck directly with their White House backers.
That argument has worn thin as other signatories to the peace plan have begun talks with rebels within their own borders and the contras themselves have begun loudly demanding truce negotiations. Ortega's display of enthusiasm for democratic change, several U.S. and Latin officials said, has made it all but impossible for him to reject less palatable cease-fire provisions of the peace plan without appearing two-faced.
The White House has long accused Ortega of just that, making a show of compliance with the peace plan in order to get rid of American aid to the rebels.
Ortega Dilemma Seen
"If he says yes, he loses a little" by conceding that his contra opponents are worthy foes, one American official said of Ortega's options. "If he says no, he loses a lot."
That dilemma has grown as the plan itself gained legitimacy and momentum in recent weeks, those officials said.
Prospects for talks between the two sides brightened considerably last week, after President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica received the Nobel Peace Prize on Tuesday for his authorship of the peace plan, according U.S. and Latin officials.
In a radio interview broadcast in Nicaragua that evening, Arias called a cease-fire discussion between the contras and Ortega "indispensable, a prerequisite to be able to advance toward a lasting peace."
He also noted that the two other Central American leaders battling insurgencies--Presidents Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador and Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo of Guatemala--were negotiating truces with rebels who had carried on wars for seven and 27 years, respectively.
Arias had proposed in a Sept. 17 letter to Ortega that Nicaragua's Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, broker a cease-fire between the Sandinistas and the contras. Ortega has appeared to flatly reject the idea, most recently in an Oct. 5 interview with American reporters in New York.
"Calling for a dialogue with the contras is little more than an instrument used by Mr. Reagan to try to legitimize a force of his own creation," he said then. "The leadership of the contras would have a series of unreasonable, of absurd, demands. The dialogue would fail," giving the White House an excuse to seek more aid for the rebels.
Since Arias' Nobel award, however, Ortega's tone has softened.
In a broadcast on Nicaragua's government-controlled radio station last Wednesday, the Nicaraguan leader said he will "keep . . . in mind" Arias' proposal to use an intermediary in cease-fire talks but still prefers direct talks with the United States.
In Washington last week, Nicaragua's ambassador to the United States, Carlos Tunnerman, delivered the same message in a private meeting with a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee and other Latin ambassadors.
Tunnerman said that the Arias proposal "had not been rejected--in essence, that it was under consideration," said one participant.
Several Reagan Administration officials said last week they know of no formal effort by Nicaragua to open a channel between its government and the contras. One Latin official, however, said that discussions now under way are aimed at finding a mediator who might be acceptable to both Ortega and the contras.
The rebels have indicated they will accept Obando y Bravo, a sharp Sandinista critic who also heads that nation's National Commission on Reconciliation.
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux, in Managua, contributed to this story.