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Putting Peace on Hold

February 23, 1988

Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo's giving substance and direction to the peace process in Nicaragua is a welcome development, which the U.S. Congress must respect as it weighs its next step.

The cardinal shocked both the government of Nicaragua and the Contra rebels by breaking off a three-day negotiating session at mid-point last weekend. He had presented his own proposal for the immediate implementation of a cease-fire.

It was accepted "in principle" by the Contras, but the government gave only tentative agreement and asked for clarifications. The cardinal found neither response fully satisfactory, and decided that there was no good reason to continue the consultations in those circumstances. Now the cardinal has said that the talks can resume only when delegates on both sides come "with a power to make decisions." Fair enough.

The Sandinistas who rule Nicaragua are faced with a critical decision. If they accept Obando y Bravo's cease-fire proposal, they will be committed to profound democratic reforms. If they reject the proposal, they will be renouncing the Central America peace plan that they themselves signed in August. He has asked for nothing from them that was not explicit or implicit in that agreement--including total amnesty, full political participation by opposition groups, press freedom and reconsideration of obligatory military service.

The Contras sense that this crisis in the negotiations will work to their advantage. Perhaps. But they must also recognize that their acceptance of withdrawal to fixed positions during the 30-day cease-fire is not intended to allow them to regroup for a renewal of the armed offensive. It is intended as a transition to their return to full participation in the civilian life of their nation. How those 30 days are used will depend in large measure on how the Central Intelligence Agency intends to use the opportunity for the resupplying of the Contras, and that in turn will be influenced by what Congress does later this week on the Contra aid issue. The critical consideration for the U.S. government is to be sure that it acts only to reinforce the peace process as interpreted not by the CIA but by the leaders of Central America themselves.

Obando y Bravo's strong role is enhanced by his appointment last autumn by President Daniel Ortega as chairman of the National Reconciliation Commission created under terms of the Aug. 7 peace agreement, and his subsequent appointment by the government of Nicaragua as mediator.

There is a desperation in Nicaragua that underscores the urgency of negotiating a cease-fire. Prolongation of the war, which already has caused 26,500 deaths and more than 23,000 casualties, can only deepen the misery that besets the nation. The war has preyed primarily on civilians. The ruin of those lost lives can never be overcome. But the peace agreement has demonstrated that there is an alternative. Obando y Bravo is putting that alternative to the test. And we will know in the days ahead the results of that test as it measures the real intentions for Nicaragua of both Sandinistas and Contras.

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