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Things Are Looking Up

November 11, 1987

There is movement, at least, in President Reagan's acceptance of a U.S. role in Central American peace negotiations that would include the Sandinista rulers of Nicaragua. It is an appropriate first response to the Sandinistas' decision last Friday to ask Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua, to mediate a cease-fire with the Contras.

Both Washington and Managua are holding back on the crucial steps needed to accelerate the peace process. The United States has no good reason to refuse direct bilateral talks with Nicaragua; the visit to Washington this week of President Daniel Ortega offers an opportunity for just such an exploration. Nicaragua has no good reason to restrict its talks with the Contras to indirect negotiations limited to a cease-fire.

The governments of Guatemala and El Salvador are engaged in open-ended negotiations with guerrilla movements within their nations on political as well as cease-fire issues. Indeed, it is difficult if not impossible to separate one from the other.

President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, principal architect of the the Aug. 7 peace agreement, hailed President Reagan's response as "a positive step for which I feel very content as it is one step closer to attaining peace." Arias is a realist and has seemed to expect progress only step by step. He nevertheless looked ahead to the next step: "Now it is easier to see a bilateral dialogue between Washington and Managua."

There had been direct talks between the United States and Nicaragua during the first three years of the Reagan Administration. Those talks were fatally handicapped by the failure of Reagan to decide what it was that he wanted. Initially his negotiators demanded only an end to Managua's role in supplying arms to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador, but ultimately they were seeking nothing less than the overthrow of the Sandinistas. At one stage, there was agreement from the Sandinistas to halt the flow of arms to insurgents in El Salvador, but by then Washington had raised the stakes to demand for Nicaragua a degree of democracy that no Central American nation except Costa Rica has ever known. It was a formula more concerned with the destruction of the Sandinistas than the establishment of peace.

The Aug. 7 agreement of the five Central American presidents, now being put into place, was enacted over objections from the Reagan Administration and in the face of intense covert pressures by the U.S. government to wreck the peace plan before it could be tested. Now there seems to be reluctant acceptance in the White House that perhaps the Central Americans can be trusted to devise their own peace. There is, in fact, evidence that the five presidents have every intention of doing just that, regardless of Washington. But they would be the first to say how much easier the task would be with Washington's encouragement and help.

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