SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, the architect of the latest Central American peace plan, joined Vice President Dan Quayle's criticism of Nicaragua on Wednesday, complaining that under current conditions there, "having . . . open elections is not possible."
His remark--something of a departure from his effort to play the central role of conciliator in the strife-torn region--reflected a successful conclusion to Quayle's low-key, business-like venture into Central America.
Although the vice president made a quick stop in El Salvador in February, his trip this week to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica was his first major diplomatic effort as vice president to an international trouble spot.
The 72-hour journey provided him with an opportunity to develop a leading role in Central American diplomacy, while criticizing Nicaragua and Panama--two nations in which the Reagan Administration failed to achieve its goals and the young Bush Administration has shown scant signs of progress.
Substance of Trip
Indeed, he expressed pleasure to his staff as the tour ended that news coverage dealt with the substance of the trip, rather than with how he conducted himself--the latter having been the focal point of what a senior aide called the "performance reviews" written by reporters on his 12-day journey to Asia six weeks ago.
Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force Two as he flew back to Washington from Costa Rica, Quayle said, "What we were able to do was to develop in a very substantive way a genuine consensus on our strategy toward two very important countries that we're presently having problems with, Nicaragua and Panama."
But if there was a downside to the visit, it was that no specific course of action was formulated--or even raised, according to a number of officials on the trip--should current efforts in Panama and Nicaragua fail.
In addition, Quayle--still feeling his way in this particularly difficult part of the world--expressed disappointment with his inability to drive a wedge between leftist Salvadoran politicians Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora, on the one hand, and the guerrilla movement--the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front--with which they are allied, on the other.
"I was hopeful that they would have condemned the FMLN more than they did," he said.
Issue of Arrests
But Quayle said he surprised the two in a brief meeting by responding to their complaint about the recent arrests of two labor union leaders that he had already raised the issue with right-wing President Alfredo Cristiani.
In the view of officials traveling with the vice president, the goal of the journey was to demonstrate to Panama and Nicaragua "the solidarity of the democratically elected presidents" in the region behind the Administration's policies.
In Panama, a mission representing the Organization of American States is trying to negotiate the departure of military strongman Manuel A. Noriega. He has been indicted on drug-running charges in two U.S. district courts, and has refused to recognize the results of last month's presidential election that independent observers say was won overwhelmingly by an opposition alliance.
In Nicaragua, the United States and the four Central American democracies that Quayle visited are focusing their attention on the conduct of elections President Daniel Ortega has promised to hold in February, 1990.
"Free and fair" elections are a key element in a Central American peace plan to which Nicaragua and its neighbors agreed in August, 1987.
Arias, whose regional peace efforts have been recognized with a Nobel peace prize, met with Quayle Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.
Standing in the doorway of his sprawling, single-story home in a suburban neighborhood overlooking San Jose, Arias criticized the structure of Nicaragua's election machinery. "I feel that . . . open elections (are) not possible, with their elections law, with their laws on the media--it is impossible."
"Not that I think Nicaragua could hold elections that would be similar or like those that we have in Costa Rica or like those that you have in the United States. But they will have to meet at least a minimum standard so they can be considered legitimate," he said.
The Sandinista leaders have named a five-member Supreme Electoral Council, which has been given mixed reviews by the opposition, to oversee the election of a president, vice president, assembly and municipal governing boards.
Quayle said that he and Arias "share genuine disappointment at the lack of compliance" with the peace plan, which also calls for a halt in the shipment of arms as well as elections.
For their part, Nicaragua's Sandinista leaders made no direct comment on Quayle's Central American tour but seized upon his meeting Tuesday with Contra leaders in Honduras to protest that country's agreement to continue harboring the rebels.
In a letter to his Honduran counterpart Wednesday, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto accused Honduras of violating a Feb. 14 agreement with Nicaragua and three other Central American countries to work toward closing the Contra camps.
For Quayle, the trip proved to be nearly flawless. Indeed, when his motorcade stopped at a small store in Guatemala City and he bought a green and white soccer ball for his children, a crowd quickly formed.
He tossed the ball over his limousine into the throng, and joked, "I'll never see that again," as the ball disappeared into a sea of hands. But seconds later it came flying back, and the happy shopper climbed back into his car, his gift secure.
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux, in Managua, Nicaragua, contributed to this story.