El Salvador's decision to suspend relations with Nicaragua has dealt a crippling and perhaps fatal blow to a Central American peace process that, just a month ago, seemed moving toward a settlement of guerrilla wars in both countries.
Since August, 1987, four landmark agreements among the region's presidents have diverted much of the U.S.-backed Contra war against Nicaragua's Sandinista rulers into a broadly contested political campaign that is to culminate in national elections next Feb. 25.
The latest regional accord--among Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua--also led to two rounds of peace talks, in September and October, between El Salvador's new rightist government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Suddenly, both wars have escalated. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, accusing the Bush Administration of ordering stepped-up Contra raids to disrupt the elections, ended a 19-month cease-fire Nov. 1. In turn, El Salvador's U.S.-backed government has charged Ortega with arming the FMLN for a major guerrilla offensive that began here Nov. 11.
President Alfredo Cristiani's announcement Sunday of a diplomatic break with Managua marks the most serious conflict between any of the five nations that have worked so closely to find a common formula for settling internal guerrilla conflicts.
"Today, the level of war and the level of political tension in the region is greater than at any other moment of this process," Francisco Rojas Aravena, a Costa Rican political analyst, said Sunday. "It will be very difficult to reactivate any kind of peace initiative for many months."
Among the likely casualties of the renewed conflict is the scheduled fifth Central American summit, which had been set to take place in Nicaragua early next month.
Cristiani said he would not go to Nicaragua but would ask instead that the leaders of the three other countries meet him elsewhere and condemn Ortega. Costa Rican officials immediately rejected that idea, apparently scuttling hopes for any meeting.
"I don't think isolating Nicaragua helps any peaceful purpose," said John Biehl, an adviser to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez. "If Cristiani has proof of Nicaraguan involvement, he should present it to the others. If what happened is real, it's very serious, and Ortega will have a lot of explaining to do."
Arias won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for drafting the plan on which the original accord was based. Among its principles is that no country is to aid insurgents trying to overthrow the government of another and that rebels will lay down their arms in return for amnesty and a fair chance to compete in democratic elections.
Though poles apart in ideology, Ortega and Cristiani share a stake in the peace process because it favors established governments.
Ortega, while resuming the military offensive against the Contras, has held nine rounds of talks with their leaders this month trying to find terms for the rebel army's disbandment. The talks reached an impasse last Tuesday.
As a result, Ortega was looking forward to the December meeting to demand compliance with the previous summit accord to shut down Contra camps in Honduras by Dec. 5.
Some diplomats in the region believe Nicaragua has indeed shipped arms to the FMLN, in part as a bargaining chip to force some action to disband the Contras. If that is the case, Cristiani could have gained by confronting Ortega at the summit.
"Cristiani needs these forums to help him delegitimize the FMLN," said a Guatemalan political analyst. "The fact that he is giving up that option shows how weak he is against the hard-liners in his own military."
The United States has built up the Salvadoran and Honduran armed forces to halt what it calls the threat of subversion by the Sandinistas, who took power in their own guerrilla uprising in 1979 and maintain close ties with the FMLN. The Reagan Administration used Costa Rican and Salvadoran territory, as well as Honduras, as staging areas for Contra operations.
Despite the resulting regional friction--including Nicaraguan and Honduran military raids into each other's territory--the five countries managed to maintain diplomatic ties with each other--until Sunday.
Even before Cristiani's decision, Costa Rican officials had expressed doubt that a December meeting could be held. Arias was angered when Ortega spoiled his Pan American summit in Costa Rica last month by announcing the end of the Nicaraguan cease-fire. And he felt betrayed by both the government and guerrillas in El Salvador for escalating their fighting just three weeks after holding peace talks under his auspices.
"The whole peace plan is on the threshold of being blown to pieces," Guillermo Solis, a Costa Rican Foreign Ministry official, said last week.
Central American officials now believe that a summit must wait at least until after new governments being elected in Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua take office between January and May. By that time, Arias--the driving force behind the peace process--will be gone.