THE MALTA SUMMIT : Moscow Offers to Curb Latin Arms : Central America: Bush now says that Nicaragua has lied to the Soviets about supplying weapons to the Salvadoran rebels.


The Soviet Union has dispatched envoys to Nicaragua and Cuba to apply pressure on those two nations to cut off arms supplies for leftist rebels in El Salvador, Soviet officials told their American counterparts during the Malta summit.

The cessation of arms shipments to the leftist rebels has been a major demand of the Bush Administration. As recently as last month, Secretary of State James A. Baker III described Soviet Bloc support for the rebels as the chief impediment to better relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

And in the Malta meetings, Central America was the “most contentious” of many issues addressed by President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Sunday.


But the level of dispute apparently was quite low. As the meetings ended, U.S. officials had notably lowered the level of their rhetoric, painting the Soviet Union, at worst, as an overly trusting patron.

“I don’t believe that the Sandinistas have told the truth to our Soviet friends,” Bush said during his joint press conference with Gorbachev. The statement was the first by Bush directly accusing Managua’s regime of lying to the Soviet leadership about the issue.

Soviet officials have been claiming for months that they had severed any direct ties to the arms supply to El Salvador’s rebels. But in the past, U.S. officials had expressed considerable skepticism. Now, that skepticism seems to have been shelved.

The U.S. accepts Soviet assurances that no arms are being shipped directly and that Soviet pressure is being applied to stop shipments through Soviet allies.

“We think they’re trying,” Baker said during an interview on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” program. “We would like to encourage them to try a little harder.”

“We believe them when they say they’re leaning on these people,” Baker added.

And Bush raised the possibility that the Soviets might have no involvement at all in the arms shipments. The weapons going to the rebels might have been purchased on the black market, he suggested, a possibility that Administration officials scoffed at as recently as a few months ago.


“Everyone knows there’s a wide international arms flow out there,” Bush said.

U.S. officials accuse both Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua of working to subvert their conservative neighbors. The Administration has been hoping that free elections scheduled for February in Nicaragua will end Sandinista rule.

During the joint press conference, Gorbachev made a point of praising U.S. efforts to guarantee free elections. “We are in favor of a political settlement of the situation in Central America,” he said.

The new mood has not resolved all differences over Central America. But, said Bush, “If there are remaining differences, I like to think they have been narrowed.”

Further, Bush and his senior advisers noted, the summit has demonstrated that the two nations now can simply disagree over an issue without having their dispute become a major ideological conflict.

The arms issue returned to public view late last month when a small plane carrying weapons crashed inside El Salvador en route to a rebel stronghold.

At the time, U.S. officials said the plane contained documents showing direct links to Nicaragua.



President Bush and Soviet leader Gorbachev said they had narrowed differences over El Salvador and Nicaragua at their Malta summit. Bush complained that arms are still reaching leftist guerrillas fighting the U.S.-backed government in El Salvador, suggesting that Nicaragua’s Sandinista government is not being truthful with Moscow about sending arms to El Salvador. But Bush accepted Gorbachev’s assurance that Moscow is no longer sending weapons.