In the first substantive meeting in at least six years between a senior U.S. official and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader promised Vice President Dan Quayle on Monday that he will relinquish power as scheduled next month, Quayle said.
"He guaranteed me two things: One, on April 25 he will turn over his presidency to Violeta (Barrios de) Chamorro, and two, he guaranteed to me that Violeta Chamorro will appoint all of the ministries, including the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry," the vice president said.
Quayle added: "We are going to work with him and others to make this happen. I believe it will happen."
While Ortega has made such promises during the 2 1/2 weeks since Chamorro upset him in the Nicaraguan presidential election, a senior U.S. official traveling with Quayle said that Monday's pledge, made directly to the vice president, was taken by the Bush Administration as "a very definitive commitment" that "the vice president found . . . very assuring."
Ortega's promise to hand over the powerful Interior and Defense ministries--and to guarantee that their new ministers would report to Chamorro--was seen as particularly important because those posts control the governmental machinery through which the Sandinistas have exercised much of their control of Nicaragua.
The two leaders encountered each other three times during the day in Santiago, where they were attending celebrations marking the peaceful transfer of power to a democratically elected government after 16 1/2 years of dictatorship by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Ortega, comparing the experience in Chile this weekend to the transition facing Nicaragua, pledged "to make the transfer in Nicaragua more peaceful than the transfer here in Chile," the Vice President said.
Toward that end, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez said during a meeting here with Quayle that he and other Central American leaders had agreed to meet March 30 and 31, presumably in Nicaragua, and "the main item will be the repatriation of the Contras," most of whom are in camps in Honduras.
Quayle spoke to reporters as he was about to board Air Force II en route to Asuncion, Paraguay, his fourth stop on a seven-day, seven-nation tour of the West Indies and South America.
While Quayle's aides said Ortega attached no conditions to his promises, the Nicaraguan president told reporters in Santiago that the best way for a normal transition to take place "would be that the Contras cease to exist by April 25," when Chamorro is scheduled to take office.
Ortega said Quayle responded that the United States would "seek ways of supporting that idea so that the Contras are no longer around by April 25."
However, a senior vice presidential assistant said Quayle only agreed that the United States would work toward the demobilization of the Contras without setting a specific date for their disbanding.
The twinned questions of the futures of the Contras, the rebel army supported by the United States, and of the Sandinista-led Nicaraguan army have dogged officials in the United States and Central America as they seek the smooth transfer of power from Ortega to Chamorro after eight years of guerrilla warfare.
The Contras are reluctant to lay down their weapons while the Sandinistas maintain control of the highly politicized Nicaraguan army. And the Sandinistas, for their part, have sought guarantees of their safety as the opposition leaders, aligned with the Contras, take over civilian authority in the strife-torn Central American nation.
The United States has proposed that United Nations peacekeeping forces could be inserted between the two hostile camps, and Ortega was said to have told Quayle "that would be fine if they were willing to take a risk."
With Bush about to announce a package of economic assistance for Nicaragua, Ortega was also said to have asked Quayle for the immediate lifting of economic sanctions imposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. The vice president responded, aides said, that Chamorro had already sought such a move and that it was being "actively considered by the White House."
Economic advisers to the Nicaraguan president-elect have asked for $200 million to $300 million in aid, and Bush is expected to announce his decision today.
After years of hostility between Washington and Managua, Quayle ended up meeting three times on Monday with Ortega, with each meeting longer than the previous one and the tone apparently growing warmer as the day progressed.
The longest session occurred over lunch at the Chilean and presidential palace with the collection of foreign leaders attending the Chilean celebrations. Ortega asked Arias to switch seats with him so that he could sit next to Quayle. The two men then ended up in a conversation that lasted 1 1/2 hours.
Ortega later described the discussion as "frank, friendly and constructive."
At a 10-minute meeting during a reception that preceded the luncheon, Quayle was said by an aide to have told Ortega that the transfer of power cannot be held up while he waits for the Contras to lay down their arms.
"You can't make unilateral demobilization of the Contras a precondition for the transfer of power," Quayle told Ortega, according to a senior Quayle aide.
At their first meeting of the day, they encountered each other for barely one minute at the start of a Roman Catholic Mass celebrating a return of democracy to Chile.
The interaction throughout the day between Quayle and Ortega reflected the turnabout that is occurring in Central America. The vice president, who has certainly shared President Bush's angry rhetoric toward the Sandinistas and perhaps gone beyond it in harshness, appeared generally relaxed about his encounters.
HELP FOR NICARAGUA
A U.S. aid package is due to be unveiled today. A16