Washington — The search for peace in Central America has been irrevocably changed by events of the past few weeks, says a top Carter administration diplomat. For one thing, by plunging headlong into the peace process the Reagan administration has admitted that Nicaragua's Sandinista government will continue to exist and must be dealt with, Sol Linowitz, co-negotiator of the Panama Canal treaties, said in a breakfast meeting with reporters.
In the peace plan developed jointly with House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas, the White House calls for democratic reforms in the Sandinista regime, in exchange for an end to US aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
``This means we accept the existence of the Sandinistas and then go from there,'' says Mr. Linowitz. ``Until now we have avoided that kind of statement.''
The Sandinistas, for their part, made an unprecedented move by joining with Central American neighbors in signing the peace plan developed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez. Though there are important differences between the Central American and US plans, the Latin formula also calls for Nicaraguan democratic reforms as well as an end to outside assistance for rebel groups in the region.
The Sandinistas ``have now committed themselves in an international treaty to undertake these things,'' Linowitz says. ``If they breach the treaty, not only are they going to have opposition in the United States but they will have breached an understanding with their neighbors.''
The Reagan administration didn't think that Nicaragua would sign the Central American pact, Linowitz claims. In addition, White House officials thought that Honduras and Costa Rica were such good US allies they would ask the administration's position before putting pen to paper.
But, he says, the release of the Reagan-Wright plan only days before the Central American leaders met ``stiffened their resolve to make an agreement,'' because it offended their sense of sovereignty.
Linowitz says he supports direct, bilateral negotiations between the US and Nicaragua. The administration has long opposed this, on the grounds the Sandinistas should first talk with the contras.
Linowitz also says the regional plan's weak security guarantees should be bolstered by including provisions previously reached in the Contadora peace process, such as reducing the size of the Sandinista military.