WASHINGTON — The United States is considering reopening long-suspended diplomatic talks with Nicaragua in the wake of President Daniel Ortega's pledge to hold indirect cease-fire negotiations with the U.S.-backed Contras, a senior State Department official said Saturday.
The senior official said that the resumption of talks is now "the right question" in the Central American peace process that began last August, but that new discussions are unlikely until it is clear that Nicaragua is seriously negotiating with the rebels.
Ortega said Thursday in a Managua speech that Nicaragua will conduct cease-fire talks with the Contras through an intermediary. Later, he announced that he had asked Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to serve as mediator. The timing and substance of the talks have yet to be decided.
The senior State Department official, a ranking policy-maker on Latin American matters, said the United States also is considering whether other Central American democracies should be included in any renewed U.S.-Nicaragua discussions. Honduran President Jose Azcona Hoyo called for such regional talks in October discussions with the White House and Congress, the official said.
Multilateral negotiations are a reasonable option, because any U.S.-Nicaraguan discussions would probably touch on regional economic issues and the balance of military forces throughout the area, the official said.
The United States and Nicaragua suspended diplomatic negotiations in January, 1985, and have waged propaganda battles over the issue ever since.
Until his Thursday speech, Ortega had demanded renewal of face-to-face talks with the United States as a condition for beginning indirect cease-fire negotiations with the Contras.
The United States has said that it would consider resuming talks with Nicaragua, but only if Ortega first talked to the Contras.
"As soon as the (Ortega) regime is willing to sit down with the resistance, we'd be willing to sit down with them," Secretary of State George P. Shultz told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month. "And there are bilateral matters that could be discussed," including the relaxation of a U.S. trade embargo against the Nicaragua government, he said.
With Ortega's apparent agreement to indirect cease-fire talks with the Contras, "we've been thinking about that" possibility, the senior State Department official said. He declined to predict when a decision on renewed discussions will be made or what form those discussions would be likely to take.
On Saturday, Ortega said that he wants Cardinal Obando to act as a mediator between Managua and Washington, as well as with the Contras, United Press International reported.
"Right now the most important role (Obando) can play is in helping arrange a cease-fire," Ortega said. "And if to arrange a cease-fire he has to speak to President Reagan, well then he has to do it, . . . as long as President Reagan wants to speak with him."
Ortega is to address delegates of the Organization of American States in Washington on Wednesday.
In a 75-minute discussion of the Central American situation, the State Department official grudgingly praised Ortega for his Thursday speech, in which the Nicaraguan leader also granted amnesty to about 1,000 of the nation's 6,500 or more political prisoners and promised to free other prisoners and lift a national state of emergency when outside aid to the Contras is ended.
'A Good First Step'
The official called the speech "a good first step" toward meeting the terms of the peace accord signed by Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in August. He added, however, that each of the promises made in the speech falls short of actually fulfilling promises that Ortega made in signing the peace plan.
"A good second step would be to turn it into reality," the official said.
President Reagan echoed those views in his Saturday radio address, saying the world "is waiting to see if the Sandinistas in Nicaragua keep the promises they made" when they signed the accord in August.