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Taking Charge

January 14, 1988

The Central America peace plan and the disappointing progress in implementing it will be the principal item on the agenda of the Central America summit meeting that will convene Friday in San Jose, Costa Rica. But an equally important element of that meeting is what it symbolizes: Central Americans taking charge of Central America.

That is not yet understood by President Reagan--judging by the recent extraordinary campaignof his national-security adviser, Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, to make an indictment of Nicaragua the main business of the meeting.

The response of the Sandinista regime that rules Nicaragua has certainly fallen woefully short of the goals set by the peace agreement that Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega signed in August. Civil rights have been restored only partly. A single opposition newspaper has been allowed to resume publication, and severe constraints were placed on the Roman Catholic radio station when it was allowed to resume broadcasts. Ortega himself has frustrated the efforts of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the official mediator, to establish negotiations between the government and the U.S.-supported Contras to end the guerrilla warfare.

But the Contras themselves and the U.S. government, both Congress and the executive, have also played a part in prolonging the war and in frustrating the peace in Nicaragua, as the peace-monitoring committee has made clear. A major new military offensive was launched by the Contras even as efforts to establish a holiday cease-fire were under way. Congress voted additional non-lethal aid and a continuation of shipments of previously authorized arms and ammunition, flouting the peace agreement's appeal for a suspension of all outside assistance to guerrilla forces.

Nor is Nicaragua the only problem. With U.S. encouragement, Honduras has allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to maintain its supply bases in Honduras, and has allowed the Contras to continue using bases within the nation, in direct violation of the terms of the peace agreement that Honduras also had signed. Even Costa Rica has continued to harbor Contras. President Oscar Arias Sanchez, the principal architect of the peace plan, acted only on the eve of the summit to order three Contra leaders out of Costa Rica. And guerrilla warfare continues in both El Salvador and Guatemala.

The insensitivity of the Reagan Administration has been most evident in the tour that Powell and Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for Latin America, made to Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guatemala, but not Nicaragua, in anticipation of the summit. Their mission was to persuade those four nations to pillory Nicaragua and do nothing that would make it harder for the President to wring more military aid for the Contras from Congress in February. The American envoys were portrayed as dismayed to find signs that the Latin Americans were not yet ready to write off the peace plan as a failure or to encourage more U.S. arms for the Contras.

Once again the Reagan Administration appears determined to press its narrow preoccupation with the situation in Nicaragua, and its captivation with military solutions, when the leaders of Central America--and the principal leaders of all of Latin America--perceive the situation in Nicaragua on different terms and oppose continuation of the Contra warfare. That has been made clear again in the peace-monitoring commission report. The obstruction of the peace process by the U.S. government has given license to the obstruction in Nicaragua and Honduras, and has made more difficult the task of the Central American presidents.

The Central American presidents overcame that difficulty on Aug. 7 in Guatemala City when they agreed, all five of them, to the terms of peace. Their challenge now is to give new life to that agreement--a challenge that will demand significant concessions not just in Managua but particularly in Managua. As the review commission said on Wednesday, "It would be erroneous to assume no advances have been made," and yet "we cannot declare the task completed." By taking charge, the Central Americans have not yet achieved peace, but they have achieved more than interventions from Washington are likely to produce.

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