NEW YORK — It is now 73 days since the presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador agreed to a set of steps for peace in Central America. The agreement caught Washington and much of the world by surprise--as has the energy and grit with which the Central American presidents have been making good on their commitments.
Peace will still elude the region on Nov. 7, the deadline for some major provisions of the agreement. Yet sufficient progress will have been made, not only to assure the effort a longer life but to infuse it with a certain robustness. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize last week to the plan's originator, Costa Rica President Oscar Arias Sanchez, is less a recognition of what has been accomplished than a benediction on what is underway.
If signing the Guatemala accord expressed the Central American yearning for peace, the follow-up activities of the respective presidents reflect the limitations of their power. Each party must take initiative to show good will, but none can go too far--with so much at stake--without reciprocal acts. The United States, though not a signatory, could greatly ease the process, but Central Americans are learning that they can proceed without us. This was evident when El Salvador President Jose Napoleon Duarte visited the White House on Wednesday and strongly defended the accord while also stressing friendship for the United States.
Though agreement to the Arias plan was unexpected, it was no accident. It expressed a confluence of events and trends building for many months. First and foremost, the five presidents came to a shared sense of the toll that the Central American conflicts were taking on the entire region. While the burdens of war had fallen most heavily on Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, they weighed as well on Costa Rica and Honduras, which have reluctantly given sanctuary both to refugees and anti-Sandinista rebels. Since 1981, per capita income in the region had dropped by 26% and, with continuing violence, prospects seemed bleak.
Second, for differing reasons, the presidents of Nicaragua and El Salvador were ready to pursue peace. Daniel Ortega was selected to stand for the Nicaraguan presidency as the compromise candidate--acceptable to other Sandinista factions because he was so unprepossessing. But over the past three years, he and his fellow "moderates" have established their ascendancy. A relaxation of tension is in their interest as well as their country's.
Meanwhile, Duarte's political star had fallen in El Salvador. In pursuing peace, Duarte could appeal to his people's war-weariness and show a measure of independence from the United States. And the Arias plan--by calling for an end to foreign support for insurgent groups and dialogue with unarmed opposition--legitimized the Ortega and Duarte governments and discredited the rebel causes.
Third, never enthusiastic about the U.S.-backed contras, the presidents of countries neighboring Nicaragua had become convinced that the U.S. policy toward the Sandinistas was moribund. Most Central Americans believed the contras could not defeat the Sandinistas. And now, power ebbing away, President Reagan seems incapable of sustaining congressional support for the contras.
Finally, the Guatemala agreement signifies Central American independence. Since agreeing on the Arias plan, the Central American presidents have taken steps to implement provisions in advance of the deadline. For example, all the signatories have decided to set up commissions on national reconciliation. In the cases of both El Salvador and Guatemala, historic meetings have been held between the governments and armed insurgents.
In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas have named their toughest critic, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, to head the reconciliation commission, approved the reopening of the newspaper La Prensa and Radio Catolica and permitted the assembly of peaceful opponents. They have also repatriated a key rebel group of Miskito Indians, promoted the previously existing amnesty program and unilaterally declared cease-fire zones in three embattled provinces. Even more promising, Ortega and the commandantes have crisscrossed the country to explain the agreement and campaign for peace. The Sandinistas appear to have gone too far to be engaging simply in propaganda ploys.
If the progress toward peace still falls short of the mark set for Nov. 7, the United States must bear much responsibility. Reagan has offered halfhearted praise for the Guatemala agreement, but also denounced it as "fatally flawed." In fact, the agreement's underlying weakness for the Administration is precisely the foundation for peace. The Central Americans will accept the existence of the Sandinista regime in return for Sandinista guarantees about its behavior at home and in the region.
By now the U.S. Administration's opposition is clear on three basic points: