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Resolving differences between the US and Nicaragua is mostly a matter of trust

By Dennis VolmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 1983


During the past month, faint hints of flexibility on the part of both Nicaragua and the United States have introduced some hope into what many observers see as a steadily deteriorating situation in Central America.

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In early December, Nicaragua made a series of conciliatory gestures toward its internal opposition and the US. It issued a partial amnesty to political exiles, started a dialogue with opposition and church leaders, relaxed somewhat on press censorship, announced the likelihood of some sort of elections in 1985, and announced the departure of 2,000 Cuban teachers and advisers.

These moves were greeted privately with some skepticism by US officials who felt they might be easily reversible and propaganda ploys. They suggested the Cuban teachers could be returning to Havana merely as part of a normal vacation rotation.

But Secretary of State George Shultz broke out of the pattern of official distrust with an announcement cautiously hailing the moves, stating that - if sincere - they could be a ''ray of light.''

As a high-level US government official put it, the heart of the problem is not that there are no solutions to the differences between the US and the ruling Sandinistas, but rather that ''each side, for very good reasons, completely mistrusts the other.''

Commenting after the Shultz statement, the official said, ''They (the Nicaraguans) have sent out peace signals, easily reversible. In response, they got a peace signal from us with Shultz's statement. This could easily be escalated.''

''They could start taking concrete action to meet some of our demands and they would get concrete actions in return,'' the official said.

He stated the areas in which the US had demanded Nicaraguan concessions:

1. Ending support for insurrection in El Salvador.

2. Cutting back on armed forces.

3. Loosening ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union.

4. Making the government legitimately dependent on popular support for free elections.

The US official said the US wanted the Sandinistas not only to hold free elections in 1985 - which they probably will win - but also to commit themselves to holding elections in the future, even if it looked like they would lose.

When asked if the US would settle for something less than a long-term commitment to perfect electoral democracy and tolerate the kind of system Mexico has (opposition parties and a free press are permitted but the government party always wins elections), the official replied: ''There is a difference between what we want and what we might have to settle for. If the Nicaraguans are prepared to stop aiding Salvadorean guerrillas and throw out Cuban advisers from the key areas, like military intelligence and state security, they would have all the cards in their hands.

''Given the state of public opinion in Congress and this country, if the Sandinistas did that, they could dictate what the US consensus would be. Those of us in the Reagan administration who want to see the Nicaraguans make concessions on all points would have to back down. The Nicaraguans could, by making concessions in the key areas of Salvador and Cuba, undercut our political support at any time.''

The official said that in the face of such moves by Nicaragua, those in the administration pushing a hard line would automatically lose out.

Another lower-level government official said the US would respond to positive Sandinista moves, but initially with some caution. He stated that behind this caution lay a sense that US concessions would be harder to retract than Nicaragua's. The Sandinistas could send Cubans back home, but Fidel Castro could easily send more; and the Sandinistas could liberalize relations with the opposition but crack down whenever convenient.

However, once the US made its major concessions - to stop financing and even disband the Somocista counterrevolutionary forces in Honduras, it would be very difficult to reverse, since these groups could probably not survive without US support. Thus, said these officials, the US would respond to Sandinista moves, but cautiously. Being the stronger country of the two, it could afford to move more slowly.