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Peace Still Within Reach

November 18, 1987

The squabble over a site for negotiations between the government of Nicaragua and the Contra rebel leaders may delay getting a cease-fire in place, but it does not appear to be a major obstacle in the path of the peace effort. Both the Sandinistas and the Contra commanders seem to have accepted Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo's insistence that he function with the full authority of a diplomatic mediator, not merely as a messenger. That is as it should be.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has given the bargaining a boost with a detailed proposal for a cease-fire. The Contra leadership has indicated its readiness to respond with a counter proposal. That at least indicates that both sides are maintaining their willingness to implement the Aug. 7 regional peace plan that has been signed by Ortega and the four other presidents of the Central American nations and has been endorsed by the Contras.

The posture of the United States in all of this has been clouded by sharp disagreements that have developed between the White House and Democrat Jim Wright, Speaker of the House. President Reagan has protested Wright's direct contacts with Archbishop Obando, President Ortega and leaders of the Contras. Congress certainly is not the best place to make foreign policy. The White House press spokesman has accused Wright, through his direct contacts with key figures in Central America, of confusing the world as to U.S. policy. That is not hard to do. Reagan Administration goals in Central America have been ambiguous from the start, and the President's initial caustic criticism of the peace plan compounded misunderstandings.

A direct role for Wright initially was sought last summer by the White House, which seemed content with his intervention so long as it conformed to that of the President. Secretary of State George P. Shultz wisely moved Tuesday to put an end to the "tiff."

What matters now in Washington is that the President and Congress affirm, unambiguously, their support for the Central American peace plan, and do all they can to facilitate Cardinal Obando's work as mediator for Nicaragua. That seemed to be what Wright intended. It remains less clear that the President shares that commitment.

Continuation of violence in northern Nicaragua on Tuesday was yet another sign of the difficulty of ending the warfare. Ortega has spoken of amnesty, and full political participation, for the Contras once a cease-fire is in place. But the Contras are understandably skeptical. It is only in the last few weeks that the leaders of Nicaragua have moved to restore some of the civil rights and political freedoms that had been systematically abrogated. Even now, there appear to be unreasonable restrictions on the press and radio, with only one opposition newspaper authorized to publish and with Radio Catolica denied permission to report news even though it has been allowed to resume broadcasting.

Implementation of the peace plan is running into serious problems in El Salvador as well. The armed leftist guerrillas there have obstructed pursuit of negotiations while at the same time there has been a resumption of activity by the dreaded death squads, operated by forces on the far right, some reportedly with ties to the military and police. Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas has issued a national warning about rising death-squad activity. Amnesty International had expressed concern for the safety of Herbert Ernesto Anaya Sanabria, director of the non-governmental human-rights commission, two months before he was assassinated on Oct. 26. Since his death, five other killings have raised concern that right-wing death squads were reviving the campaign of intimidation that has frustrated desperately needed social and economic reform.

Those who drafted the peace plan knew the complexity of the task ahead of them. Their tenacity and persistence, now that good intentions are being put to harsh tests, are at least reassuring.

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