SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA — Oscar Arias Sanchez and Daniel Ortega, two fiercely nationalistic young leaders from neighboring countries, have been the staunchest advocates of the Central American peace plan. While politically far apart and not personal friends, they both have the most to gain from its success.
Costa Rica's Arias, author of the peace plan for which he won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, has his personal reputation riding on its success. As president of the hemisphere's oldest and most stable democracy, Arias views the peace plan as the only way to prevent regional war from ruining Costa Rica's relatively privileged way of life.
Arias played the mediator at last week's Central American summit, meeting with the other presidents one-on-one during breaks and meals. He blamed Ortega for threatening the peace process by not enacting sufficient democratic reforms. But, along with Guatemala President Vinicio Cerezo, he argued that the peace plan should be extended for another 30 to 60 days. This would keep it alive until after the U.S. Congress votes on new Contra aid Feb. 3.
Nicargua's Ortega, leader of the region's only Marxist government, sees the peace plan as the best hope for ending the crippling U.S.-orchestrated war and economic boycott against his country.
At the summit, Ortega's Sandinistas proved that, nine years after coming to power, they still have a guerrilla fighter's instinct for the surprise offensive. First, they pulled off a propaganda victory, announcing a series of fast-paced liberalizations in Nicaragua and paving the way for direct peace talks with the Contra rebels. Then they arrived in Costa Rica a week earlier than expected for those talks with the Contras, although the Contras refused to begin until the prearranged date, Jan. 28. The Sandinista moves are aimed at keeping the peace plan alive and stopping, once and for all, U.S. aid to the Contras.
The Sandinista political offensive began late on a Saturday afternoon, just before final deadlines for U.S. TV networks and newspapers. While the five Central American presidents were cloistered in a conference room, an official of a New York public relations firm representing the Nicaraguan government circulated through the crowd of several hundred journalists. "This is it. Go with it," he said as he distributed the one-page communique written in English. The journalists, many of whom had already filed stories about the failure of the summit, sprinted for the bank of phones in the press room.
The communique from Ortega announced that the Sandinistas would immediately lift the six-year-old state of emergency which has restricted press and political freedoms, would open direct cease-fire talks with the Contras, would free thousands of political prisoners and would hold scheduled elections for municipal governments and for the new Central American Parliament. On the eve of the summit Ortega wrote for the New York Times that Nicaragua was willing to negotiate limits on the size of its armed forces, removal of foreign military advisers and a ban on foreign military bases. Ortega thereby agreed to implement virtually all the major reforms demanded by his opponents.
Costa Rican and Nicaraguan officials say Ortega came to the summit determined to be "flexible" and "conciliatory." He also came with the four-point communique in his pocket, but with instructions from the ruling Sandinista front only to "offer it if it became absolutely necessary."
Inside the conference room, the five presidents had, through Friday and Saturday morning, been deadlocked over whether or not to extend the timetable for implementation of the peace plan they had all agreed to in Guatemala last August.
The dilemma: deciding whether to continue supporting the peace plan or to back President Reagan's call for more aid to his "freedom fighters." As summit host Arias put it, "We all realize that the alternative to the peace plan is the continuation of war."
A top Costa Rican adviser said that behind the scenes there was "heavy pressure from the U.S. Administration for the peace plan to end." He described Washington as the "invisible and uninvited guest at the conference table."
This was confirmed by aides to U. S. congressional observers. The consensus was summed up by one foreign affairs specialist: "Washington won't be satisfied until the Sandinistas are dead or in exile."
Arias, cautious in public criticism of the United States, is described as privately angry, hurt and even depressed over U.S. pressures. "We want to be an intelligent friend, not a stupid ally," he told an interviewer. Arias has wondered aloud why President Reagan would want to hurt neutral Costa Rica.