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Peace Preserved, Barely

January 19, 1988

The Central American peace plan of Aug. 7 is alive, if not robust, and the five presidents of the region appear committed to pursuing its goals. They have asked all nations to respect the plan and its proposals for peace.

This is the welcome conclusion of the Central American weekend summit meeting. It wouldhave been more welcome had it not been necessary to pry compliance from the Sandinistas who govern Nicaragua. It would have been more welcome if the presidents could have reported thatall of the signatories were in conformity with the peace plan. The blatant violations by Nicaragua and Honduras, the incomplete implementation by Guatemala and El Salvador, and the continued flow of rebel support from the United States are disappointing. All of these actions undermine the peace process.

But the concessions that were made--above all, the agreement of the Sandinistas to talk directly with the Contras--are important. They should be nourished and encouraged by all nations, most particularly the United States.

In these circumstances it was shocking to hear the Reagan Administration, within hours of the conclusion of the summit, calling for fresh shipments of arms to support the Nicaragua rebels in direct violation of the peace agreement's terms. The U.S. government again revealed its preference for a military solution with this ready eagerness to dismiss the plan as a failure and to denounce the concessions from the Sandinistas as nothing more than political maneuvers to kill Contra aid.

Maneuvers they may be, but it is the survival of the peace plan, with the concurrence of the five Central American presidents, that dooms Contra aid--not the maneuvers of Managua.

Perhaps Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega's agreement to enter direct negotiations with the Contras was a trick. Perhaps he is only posturing to defeat the arms legislation when it comes to a vote in Washington on Feb. 3. But the fact is that Ortega has agreed to the direct talks. All who sincerely support this regional effort at a regional peace settlement should cheer that fact and do everything possible to see that the talks produce a cease-fire. It is the trickery of the Contras, raising their demands now that Managua has agreed to talk to them, that brings new risks to peace.

It is true that Nicaragua continues to be only a reluctant participant in the peace process. That has eroded confidence that Ortega's signature on the peace agreement signaled a significant policy shift. Confidence was further weakened last weekend with the temporary detention of opposition political leaders whose only "crime" was in talking to the Contras about a joint negotiating strategy. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, head of the Nicaragua National Reconciliation Commission, has affirmed the inadequacy of the response of the Nicaraguan government. The Central Americans understand this, but still want to pursue their agreement.

They also know that there is another side of the story of Managua's lamentable response. That is the lamentable response of the United States, and of Honduras, through which the Central Intelligence Agency arms and advises the Contras.

The summit meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica, offers a new opportunity for a political solution. It is a fragile opportunity, easy to fracture with a continuation of arms shipments or by stubbornness among the warring parties. The last hope that the U.S. government will play a constructive and supportive role now lies with Congress, and its willingness to see that the opportunity is exploited.

In the terms of history the peace plan already is distinguished by accomplishments thought impossible when it was signed barely five months ago. The Central Americans are assuming responsibility as no one else can. Institutional changes have already been accepted in Nicaragua that could prove irreversible in advancing democratic institutions. Each of the three nations engaged in guerrilla warfare has made a commitment to a negotiated settlement. No one said that there were no risks. But the Central Americans have preferred the risks of a political settlement to the risks of expanding warfare. And they saw no reason, at the San Jose summit, to change that judgment.

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