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.
The two staunchest U.S. allies, Honduras President Jose Azcona Hoyo and El Salvadore President Jose Napoleon Duarte, unexpectedly arrived for the summit in Costa Rica a day early, intent on enlisting Arias' support for a hard anti-Sandinista posture. Both vigorously attacked the Sandinistas for not complying with the peace plan and argued that its timetable for implementation, which expired at the summit, should not be extended "for even one minute more." Their own non-compliance with plan conditions was not an issue.
Summit insiders say Duarte was "the most verbose and intransigent" in his attacks on Nicaragua. Azcona fought--in the end successfully--to disband the international verification commission that wanted unannounced "snap" inspections of the Honduran border region where the Contras maintain military camps. At one point the elderly, white-haired Azcona left to take a short rest, sending rumors through the press corps that he had walked out in anger.
The final communique signed by the five presidents was a balancing act. Despite the Sandinista concessions and Arias' mediation efforts, Azcona and Duarte succeeded in blocking two concessions Ortega and Arias wanted in return: a joint condemnation of Contra aid and a new timetable for implementation of the peace plan. Conference sources say the presidents did, however, verbally agree to hold another summit, 30 days later, in El Salvador. Cerezo, the young president of Guatemala, is credited with having helped smooth some of the disputes. This, in effect, continues the peace process until after the U.S. Congress votes.
Azcona left in a huff, annoyed, summit sources say, because he was "tricked" into signing a joint statement and angered that Ortega had upstaged the others through his early news release.
Aides say that, in contrast, Arias and Ortega were both pleased with the summit results.
They also took pleasure in a smaller matter: successful logistical maneuvers to get Ortega in and out of Costa Rica undetected by the press, the Contras or the Costa Rica right-wingers. While journalists waited for Ortega's arrival at the airport, the Sandinista delegation, including novelists Carlos Fuentes and William Styron whom Ortega invited along for the ride, pulled up to the summit in a luxury bus with Panama license plates. Sandinista intelligence, Ortega confided, had learned that Contras near the Costa Rica boarder were planning to shoot down his plane with a missile. So, with the help of Arias and a handful of Costa Rican officials, the Sandinistas switched modes of transport.
In another display of unusual cooperation after the summit, Ortega was hustled into a Costa Rica government car with darkened windows and driven back to Nicaragua. The car belongs to the Costa Rica security minister, the most outspokenly anti-Sandinista member of Arias' Cabinet. The rest of the Sandinistas returned to Managua, riding the luxury bus.
Congressional aides and Washington analysts say that the Sandinistas' performance now gives Contra-aid opponents "a good shot" at defeating the Administration proposal. Observers figure that the vote is too close to call and developments over the next two weeks, particularly whether Ortega fulfills his promises, will be crucial determinants.
A key factor is the cease-fire talks in San Jose. The Sandinistas' interest is to keep discussion going until after the U.S. Congress votes. The Contras' interest may be to see the talks break down before Congress votes.
The intensity of the prolonged propaganda war is best described by headlines that appeared in Managua following the summit. La Prensa, the previously censored anti-government newspaper, blared, "Sandinista Surrender," while the pro-Sandinista newspaper, Nuevo Diario, proclaimed, "Peace Triumphs."
Now, this week in San Jose and next month in El Salvador, the fates of the Sandinistas and the Contras are on the line. So is the future of Central American democracy.