The first deadline in the Central America peace process is today, an occasion measured by disappointments and by obstacles that seem more conspicuous than progress. To the credit of the leadership of the Central American nations, however, this has encouraged neither panic nor passivity. They appear determined to build on what progress there has been.
No development is more encouraging than the increasingly assertive role being assumed by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua, as chairman of the national reconciliation commission for Nicaragua. He has reached out both to the Sandinista government and to the cease-fire commission created by the Contras, but the stubbornness of the government has thus far frustrated the cardinal's offer to mediate an end to the hostilities.
The stubbornness of the Nicaraguan government in refusing cease-fire negotiations with the Contras has contrasted with the efforts of the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala to undertake direct talks with guerrilla movements at war in their nations. There is no substitute for a negotiated cease-fire. That does not mean that the negotiations will always be fruitful. The assassination of the chairman of the unofficial human rights commission in El Salvador and the subsequent withdrawal from negotiations by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front measure the complexity of the task faced by President Jose Napoleon Duarte in finding common ground between extremists of the right and left. The Guatemala negotiations have proven no easier.
Much will be made by critics of the fact that this first deadline of the peace plan has come and will go without total peace. From the start, President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, chief architect of the plan, has cautioned that there almost certainly will be slippage. Every effort is being made by most of the government leaders to see that the plan does not fail. But there are many among the Nicaraguan Contras and their supporters in the United States, and within the guerrilla movements of El Salvador and Guatemala, and perhaps also within the Sandinista regime, who are eager to sabotage the plan and to pursue warfare.
The preference of many Contras for warfare stems from the likelihood that the Sandinistas will remain in power after the peace plan is in place. Many among the Contras cannot tolerate another ostensibly Marxist regime in Latin America. But the Central Americans who have contrived the peace plan have offered a constructive compromise: The Sandinistas almost certainly will mainain power, but under terms that at least open the way to democracy that could moderate the ideological extremism some Sandinistas have articulated.
The insurgencies of Central America are complex. In Nicaragua, where an armed revolution overthrew the Somoza oligarchy and replaced it with a Marxist-oriented regime, the Contras include some who fought for Somoza and others who fought against Somoza but who will not accept anything Marxist. In Guatemala and El Salvador, there has been no revolution, and the guerrillas represent leftist forces seeking to impose their own revolutions and reforms against governments struggling to construct real democracies in the face of hostility from both right and left. The history of armed struggle is played out against a background of appalling poverty and blatant wealth, of misery and privilege, that fuel conflict.
There is a particular importance in the August peace agreement. It is the work of the Central American leaders, all of them, acting in concert. It is for them to pursue the goals they have set at their pace. It will be for them to report successes, and it will be for them, not for Washington, to acknowledge failure, should there be failure. In the uncertain meantime, what Washington needs to do is to respect, in every element, the agreement the Central American presidents have signed, including absolute respect for the call for "cessation of assistance to irregular forces or insurrectionist movements."
President Jose Azcona Hoyo of Honduras summed up the hopes of the region on Tuesday when he said: "Nov. 5 is the beginning of the agreement, not the end."