As the Jan. 15 summit meeting of five Central American presidents approaches, it is becoming increasingly evident that the regional negotiations that were launched last August by the Central American peace agreements are deadlocked. It is also clear that the only person who can break the present logjam is the same one who set the entire process in motion: President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica. For now, unfortunately, he seems unwilling or unable to do so.
The negotiations between the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and the U.S.-backed Contras are going nowhere. This is largely because the Contras want to transform the talks on a cease-fire agreement foreseen by the Central American peace plan into a political negotiation. The Contras are perfectly entitled to do so, but it seems unlikely that they will obtain through tactical subterfuge and propaganda ploys at the bargaining table what they were unable to win on the battlefield.
Honduras refuses to comply with its part of the August covenant until Nicaragua does. Managua in turn refuses to move beyond what it has already done until the U.S. Congress cuts off aid to the Contras--a condition for peace that is clearly stipulated in the agreement. Congress, for its part, keeps funding the Contras because House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) seems reluctant to take on President Reagan on this issue until there is some movement in Central America that he can then brandish in support of his anti-Contra stance.
A similar situation exists with regard to the underlying problem--that is, who should determine who is complying with the agreement. On paper, at least, the responsibility belongs to the so-called International Verification and Follow-up Commission, created by the five Central American presidents and made up of their five nations, eight other Latin American countries and a representative of the secretaries general of the United Nations and the Organization of American States. But the commission has steadfastly refused to place any blame or distribute any praise other than in meaningless abstract terms.
The commission will deliver a report to the five Central American presidents during the first half of January, but there is little reason to hope that it will clearly state who is complying or what steps should be taken to get the peace process moving once again. The five presidents themselves will split along predictable lines: Honduras and El Salvador will side with the Reagan Administration in its accusations against Nicaragua, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega will argue that he cannot go further until American aid to the Contras is halted, and Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo will maintain a neutrality that closely reflects his own domestic weakness.
In a nutshell, Arias is the only credible party who is able to certify compliance or to denounce the lack of it. He is also the only person who can break the present impasse in the only way in which it can be broken--by asserting who has to take the first step in a process that should be broadly simultaneous, but in which specific step-by-step simultaneity becomes a recipe for paralysis.
Someone must take a stand and determine which interpretation of the agreement is the valid one. The Sandinista interpretation is that all that must occur in order for Honduras to expel the Contras and put an end to air-resupply missions from its territory is an indirectly negotiated cease-fire in Nicaragua. The Reagan Administration's and the Contras' view is that a political negotiation between the Contras and the Sandinistas must occur before any other steps are actually taken.
The problem, of course, lies in the fact that taking sides is a costly venture under any circumstances, and it is particularly difficult for Arias under the existing conditions. It appears virtually impossible for Arias or anyone else other than the Reagan Administration to come down squarely on the side of the Contras and against the privately held views of nearly every government and sector of public opinion within Latin America. But lining up with the Sandinistas and against the government of the United States, with no other support than an unreliable and fickle U.S. Congress, is a risky political course in Costa Rica.
Arias tells whoever is willing to listen to him--and many are willing these days--that he would prefer not to play the role of "supreme judge" that has fallen onto him. At the same time, that function is precisely the result of Arias' relatively successful mediating and peacemaking efforts. If Arias wants his endeavors to come to fruition, he is going to have to adopt a more active stance and, most important, to take sides much more openly than he has done until now. At some point every mediator has to pressure both sides, and not merely persuade them to make further concessions.
Arias can either let the peace process flounder by maintaining his present silence, align himself with a lame-duck U.S. Administration and blame the Sandinistas for the present deadlock, or insist that the Honduran government, the U.S. Congress and the Contras themselves take a first step toward peace in Central America by severing the umbilical cord that binds them to Ronald Reagan. Arias' voice counts a great deal, but only if he speaks clearly.