WASHINGTON — President Reagan said Monday that the United States would be willing to participate in peace talks with Nicaragua and other Central American nations when Nicaragua's Sandinista government begins "serious negotiations" with the U.S.-backed rebels.
But Reagan, speaking at the opening of the annual Organization of American States' foreign ministers' meeting, stressed that regional negotiations involving the United States and the Central American nations "cannot be a substitute" for direct talks between the Sandinistas and the Contras.
His remarks were the first official U.S. response to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's announcement last week that the Sandinistas would agree to talk with Contra leaders through intermediaries. Until then, the Nicaraguan government had balked at conducting any discussions with the Contras, terming them a proxy army of the United States and asserting that it would talk only with Washington.
The President's pledge of possible U.S. involvement in future peace efforts underscored the U.S. policy since it broke off negotiations with Nicaragua in January, 1985, to resume talks with the Sandinistas if they meet U.S. demands for greater freedom in Nicaragua.
But U.S. officials also said that when Ortega visits Washington this week to address the OAS, no one-on-one talks with U.S. officials are expected.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz told a press conference at OAS headquarters that the Sandinistas are "not yet apparently" ready to meet the U.S. conditions for renewed high-level contacts.
Asked whether Nicaragua could comply with the U.S. demands by the time Ortega addresses the OAS on Wednesday, Shultz replied: "It doesn't take long to let people out of jail; all you have to do is open the doors. It doesn't take long to approve applications for publications; all you have to do is check the 'approve' box. It doesn't take long for Radio Catolica to be able to make comments on the issues of the day; all you have to do is say OK. So it can happen instantaneously.
"As far as the fundamental matter--namely, talks with the democratic resistance--that is something that has been sitting there to do ever since the Guatemala City accords," he said. "El Salvador has done it; Guatemala has done it; Nicaragua has just recently said that maybe, under some circumstances, they might."
Written by Arias
The Guatemala City accords, authored chiefly by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, are the basis for the current efforts to achieve a cease-fire in the various conflicts in Central America. In addition to cease-fires, they call for reconciliation between governments and rebels, democratic reforms and a halt to military aid from outside the region. The participants in the accord include Honduras and El Salvador, as well as Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala.
Asked for his reaction to Managua's announcement that the services of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo would be sought as an intermediary for talks between the Sandinistas and the Contras, Shultz said the cardinal is "an outstanding individual on a world scale."
"If he accepts that mission, I am sure he will do a good job of it," Shultz said.
Reagan, too, welcomed the designation of the cardinal as the mediator. "The indirect talks the Sandinistas have now agreed to are a way to start" the peace process, Reagan said. "It remains clear that the next step must be direct negotiations. . . .
"When serious negotiations between the Sandinistas and the freedom fighters under the mediation of Cardinal Obando are under way, Secretary Shultz will be ready to meet jointly with the foreign ministers of all five Central American nations, including the Sandinistas' representative," the President said.
Meanwhile, a senior White House official said that the Administration is considering seeking $30 million in non-lethal assistance for the Contras, in addition to a short-term $3.2-million package that expires Dec. 16. But plans for the additional funding--sought to help the Contras maintain pressure on the Sandinistas--remain uncertain, the official said.
Bid for $270 Million
The Administration already has made known its plan to seek about $270 million in funding for the Contras early next year, and the $30 million could be in addition to that request, the official said.
In another development, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) confirmed that Nicaraguan officials had asked him last Thursday to mediate the talks with the rebels and asked Monday that he join the cardinal as a go-between. Wright said he refused.
The request, he said, was made by Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco. Tinoco returned to see him Monday morning with Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto, who was in Washington for the OAS meeting.
Wright said he told Tinoco in the first meeting: "I have a job. I couldn't leave Washington to go down to Central America. . . . They failed to understand the nature of my job."
Times staff writers Norman Kempster and Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.