The Nicaraguan government and U.S.-backed Contras ended two days of cease-fire talks Friday without concrete gains, but the two sides agreed to meet again in Guatemala after Congress votes on the Reagan Administration's proposal for $36.25 million in further aid to the rebels.
Both sides said a positive atmosphere prevailed in the first face-to-face meeting in nearly seven years of war. A mediator, Roman Catholic Msgr. Bosco Vivas, said the government and rebels engaged in "a verbal cease-fire," avoiding confrontations during the talks.
Vivas said he expects more substantive discussions during a second meeting tentatively scheduled for Feb. 10-12. He said the date must be approved by Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who is the official mediator.
Vote Due Wednesday
The key vote on the Reagan Administration's proposal for Contra aid is scheduled for next week, with the House to vote Wednesday and the Senate the next day. The White House has warned that defeat of the aid proposal would spell the end for the Contras.
Neither the Sandinistas nor the Contras apparently wanted to risk blame for a breakdown in talks before the aid vote, so both sides willingly postponed tough negotiations, according to political observers and sources close to the meetings.
"No one wanted to be the bad guy in the movie," a Costa Rican official said.
Lobbies for Support
In Washington, President Reagan pressed ahead with his campaign to win congressional approval of his Contra aid proposal. The package includes $3.6 million in military assistance to be put into an escrow account pending the outcome of the Contra-Sandinista cease-fire negotiations.
"I believe we owe it to ourselves and the people of Central America to explore fully diplomatic avenues toward solving the Nicaraguan conflict," Reagan said. "We must ask ourselves, however, what will create the conditions for serious negotiations.
"If Congress cuts off aid to the freedom fighters next week, there's little chance that the Sandinistas will bargain seriously," he said in a speech to a group of state legislators invited to the White House.
Reagan also spoke about the Contra aid program by telephone Friday with two members of Congress, the White House said. But officials would not disclose the names of those with whom the President spoke.
Speech to the Nation
The White House announced Friday that Reagan will deliver a speech to the nation at 8 p.m. Tuesday, on the eve of the House vote. In addition, the President is expected to discuss Contra aid today in his weekly radio address. Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was picked by his colleagues to deliver the Democrats' response.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater raised objections to an alternative plan being prepared by a group of Democrats, to provide non-lethal assistance to the guerrillas.
"The Democrats keep talking about 'beans and blankets,' " he said. "That's not what we're talking about; we're talking about transportation equipment and whatever non-lethal supplies are necessary to maintain the resistance as a viable fighting force."
Heartened by Talks
The White House spokesman said the Administration was heartened by the first round of the peace talks in San Jose.
"It is encouraging that they're talking, that there hasn't been a walkout or a cessation in any way," he said. "We are hopeful they'll become more substantive and will result in a cease-fire."
The Contra and Sandinista negotiating teams met with church mediators for a total of about seven hours at the Central Seminary in the lower-middle-class Paso Ancho suburb of San Jose. There were no chance meetings or informal discussions between members of the two teams outside the formal talks, sources said.
During the meeting, Msgr. Vivas presented each side with a letter from the Democratic Coordinator, a coalition of Nicaraguan opposition business groups and political parties, calling for a dialogue with all political forces in the country. The letter, in effect, confirmed their willingness to participate in a tripartite dialogue with the Sandinistas and rebels as called for in the rebels' cease-fire proposal.
Broad Concessions Sought
The Contras demand broad political concessions from the Sandinistas before they will agree to a cease-fire. They want constitutional reforms to limit the Sandinista party's power over the army and government institutions.
Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco, head of the Sandinista negotiating team, said the demands in the rebel proposal go beyond the Central American peace plan under which the talks are being held.
The accord, signed last August by five Central American presidents, requires the government to hold cease-fire talks with the unarmed opposition and a political dialogue with the civilian opposition. It also calls for democratic reforms, an amnesty and a prohibition on aid to rebel groups by Central American governments.
Urged to Disarm
The Sandinistas said the Contras must lay down their weapons and join the internal opposition in order to discuss political reforms.
Walter Calderon, a member of the Contras' negotiating team, said the Sandinista proposal amounts to a call for the Contras' "surrender." But he said he did not offer that characterization to the Sandinistas because it would have spoiled the meeting.
"We were looking for a way to touch on points of agreement so the meeting wouldn't break up," Calderon said.
He termed the talks "a victory" simply because they occurred. Throughout the war, the Sandinistas had refused to meet with the Contras, insisting instead on negotiating directly with the Reagan Administration which supports them.
During the talks Thursday, each side read its cease-fire proposal aloud and they briefly discussed the government's intention to renew stalled talks on political reforms with the internal opposition. On Friday, each side offered its analysis of the other's proposal, and the discussion focused on technical, military issues involved in a cease-fire.
A source close to the Sandinistas said their "realistic" goal going into the meeting had been to keep the talks alive and agree on a date for a further meeting, and so the Sandinistas were pleased with the results.
Afterward, the Sandinista delegation met with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for authoring the peace plan.
Arias reportedly told the Sandinistas that if they have further political concessions to make, it would be best to make them before next week's Contra aid vote in Congress. Sources said he told the delegation not to be deterred by the fact that the Reagan Administration could use concessions to bolster its push for more aid.
The Administration argues that military aid is necessary to keep pressure on the Sandinistas for more political concessions. The Sandinistas say the peace plan has brought concessions and that they will be able to make further concessions once the military pressure on them ends.
Position Tied to Aid
The Sandinistas "pledged" to the Contras through the mediator that they would not harden their negotiating position if Contra aid is cut off, according to a source close to the government.
The Contras are almost totally dependent on U.S. aid and CIA-directed supply flights. When aid was suspended in 1986, most of the guerrillas left Nicaragua for base camps in Honduras.
Meanwhile Friday, former Contra commander Fernando (El Negro) Chamorro, 54, returned to Nicaragua to join the internal political opposition. Chamorro, who headed the now-defunct Nicaraguan Armed Revolutionary Forces, said he had accepted amnesty and would join the opposition Conservative Party.
Chamorro's group received CIA support and was allied with the larger Honduras-based Nicaraguan Democratic Force, but it was never a significant military force. He quit the armed opposition a year ago.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang, in Washington, contributed to this story.