WASHINGTON — The White House and Congress observed a long-awaited deadline for a Central American cease-fire Thursday with more fighting over further U.S. aid to Nicaragua's Contras and--among some--relief that regional peace efforts begun last August are edging forward.
The relief resulted from Thursday's turnabout by Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, who agreed to enter into indirect cease-fire talks with the Contras.
Ortega and others in the Sandinista ruling directorate again had insisted last week on face-to-face talks with the United States, a stance that had kept peace efforts deadlocked since mid-October. His concession was widely seen as the only step that would keep the three-month-old peace process from collapsing.
"Today the Sandinistas will have to say they are going to negotiate," one Central American diplomat said Thursday before Ortega's speech. "If they don't announce this, then I'd say there is reason to believe the peace process is at an impasse."
The fact that Ortega did make the announcement was praised by House Democrats, the major American opponents of further U.S. aid to the Contras. "I think it's a very strong sign that they're very serious about attaining a cease-fire in Central America," said Wilson Morris, an aide to House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.). "It's what the (peace) agreement requires."
A more stolid response came from the Reagan Administration, which has maintained for most of the fall that indirect talks between the Contras and Nicaragua are a minimum step toward peace.
Ortega's decision to agree to cease-fire talks had been widely anticipated by Administration officials and discounted as a ploy to string out the peace process until all aid to Nicaraguan resistance forces runs out.
'Aren't Home Free'
"We aren't home free yet," one Administration official said. "Now we'll see the Sandinistas squirm under the pressure" to maintain an image of complying with the accord signed on Aug. 5 by the leaders of five Central American nations.
That pact calls for democratic reforms, amnesty for political prisoners and a cease-fire and reconciliation in regional insurgencies.
Many Administration experts believe that Ortega now will come under even greater pressure to comply with the democratizing planks of the plan before the presidents of Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica meet in early January to assess compliance with the pact.
If so, one said, the Sandinista leader "may have taken the cap off a genie's bottle," starting a reform process that he may find difficult to contain. That is precisely the position of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for steering regional leaders toward the August pact.
U.S. political jockeying over the Contra issue, like the fighting in Central America, continued unabated Thursday even as the cease-fire deadline came and went.
The White House denied published reports that it plans to seek $30 million in new non-lethal aid for the rebels in January, a move that could keep the Contras intact as a fighting force for months, until it becomes clear that democratic reform in Nicaragua are in place.
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that the Administration instead will stick to previously announced plans to ask Congress for $270 million in military and non-military assistance early next year, to be spread over 18 months.
The money would be spent on non-military matters, such as relocation and political activities, if a cease-fire took hold and Nicaragua made democratic reforms as promised.
The House, meanwhile, voted to approve a $3.2-million package of so-called "non-lethal" aid to the estimated 14,000 Contra troops inside Nicaragua, aimed at keeping the rebels in food and clothing, if not bullets, through the end of the year.