NOBEL Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias S'anchez says Central Americans deserve a quiet, happy Christmas. But a truce in Nicaragua's war appears unlikely unless both sides grow more flexible and determined. The failure of the Sandinistas and the contras to agree on cease-fire terms in indirect talks earlier this month is not surprising. Their positions have long been far apart. Each must answer to a diverse constituency. Concern among Sandinista hard-liners regarding contra goals in the talks is considered a key reason that a Dec. 14 session was delayed.
Fortunately, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, whose sympathies toward the contras are well known, wisely decided to back off his initial criticism of the Sandinista position and his description of the talks as at an impasse. The appearance of impartiality and his continued support of the dialogue are important to progress.
One key sticking point in the cease-fire talks has been the contras' desire to wrap every goal into them, from the democratization of Nicaragua to contra sharing of political power. The Arias plan requires that internal political matters be discussed only with unarmed civilian groups and that outside aid to and use of foreign territory by rebel forces must end.
It is a chicken-and-egg situation:
The contras want to resolve the whole dispute before agreeing to lay down arms; they see the cease-fire less as a beginning than an end.
The Sandinistas say they can't afford to fully democratize while US aid, the war it fuels, and the use of Honduras for contra bases continue. Certainly the news, confirmed by the Sandinistas over the weekend, that a major military buildup is planned in Managua with Soviet help is both disappointing and provocative. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's insistence that the move is justified by the threat of a US invasion appears a bald attempt to play on public fears.
Despite the accord's ban on foreign aid to rebel forces, the Reagan administration continues to pump as much aid as it can to the contras. The Senate last weekend approved $16 million more in nonlethal aid to the contras in a bill President Reagan otherwise threatened to veto.
Congressional opposition has forced the administration to back off its $270 million request for new military aid for the contras; but the effort is likely to be revived in light of the news about Managua's Soviet-backed buildup.
Such stepped-up Soviet aid, an item not covered in the Guatemala accord, is precisely the kind of issue the US should negotiate directly with the Sandinistas. Costa Rican President Arias, who has long urged the United States to cut aid to the contras, terms such aid a form of ``aggression,'' as providing an easy excuse for the Sandinistas to do less rather than more in the direction of democracy.
If the Soviets were to agree in US-Nicaraguan talks to withdraw their military intelligence presence in Nicaragua and stop shipping it arms, Nicaragua would simply become one more repressive government such as that in Chile, Paraguay, or Haiti under the Duvaliers; these the US tries to influence for the better rather than replace. The prime concern of the US, just as of Nicaragua's neighbors, ought to be the security threat posed by a Nicaragua that leans heavily on Cuba or the Soviet Union for arms.
The US and the contras owe Mr. Arias a debt of gratitude for offering them an avenue out of a morass of otherwise endless war. They and the Sandinistas should now cooperate in every way to make this preliminary cease-fire negotiation a step that works. It won't be easy, but going forward, however slowly, is the only way to go. As Arias says, the momentum must not be lost.