FORTUNATELY for both sides in Nicaragua's civil war, the guns will be quiet tomorrow and Christmas Day. Even a two-day truce in a war that has killed 40,000 in six years makes for a welcome breather. Getting a longer cease-fire agreement is proving far more difficult. For a time it looked as if the Sandinistas would not negotiate one at all. Finally, at the urging of peace plan architect Oscar Arias S'anchez, they agreed to indirect talks with a critic of the Sandinistas, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, as mediator. At the second round of talks, which began this week, the contras insisted on direct discussions with the Sandinistas, snagging negotiations. Managua refuses to accept the contras as equals, viewing them as US puppets; the Sandinistas want to talk directly with Washington.
The technical issue of who talks to whom must not be allowed to block cease-fire progress. The aim of the peace accord, increased security and an end to regional conflict, can be lost in preoccupation with such details.
Neither side much trusts the other. Each wants grand reserves on tap in case things don't work out as planned. President Reagan wants continued military aid for the contras, a violation of the letter of the treaty. Nicaragua wants, with Soviet help, a 600,000-man reserve army by the mid-'90s. Mr. Arias says that goal is a breach of the treaty's intent. Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega Saavedra says if the United States continues to supply the contras and ship F-5s to Honduras, he has a right to seek MIGs and other military help from Moscow. Arias rightly notes that it is the superpowers that fuel the war; without their support, much of the fighting would subside. The superpowers' role in any solution is critical.
Early on, the US criticized the Arias plan for failure to require any cut in outside aid to governments, such as Soviet support for Managua. If that security concern is paramount, as the US claims, the Reagan administration should pick up on Mikhail Gorbachev's offer to stop aiding the Sandinistas if the US stops aiding the contras.
President Ortega, too, has long said he would limit militarization and submit to verification if the US would stop its threats and sign a nonaggression pact. The US occupied Nicaragua from 1911 to 1933. The US public may be convinced that history would never repeat itself; the Sandinistas are not so sure.
Though he is often pictured as bent on spreading his revolution throughout Latin America, Mr. Ortega has every reason to welcome a graceful exit. His economy is in shambles. Unemployment is 40 percent, inflation has hit 1,000 percent, and half his budget goes for defense. The war has reached a stalemate. The Soviets have proved unreliable partners in military aid. Promises of MIGs remain unfulfilled. It was Soviet officials who urged Ortega to accept a political settlement.
As long as the administration continues to get money to help the contras, the relationship of superpower aid to security in the region can be neatly sidestepped. It doesn't help that Congress, under threat of the President's veto, has just approved $8 million more in nonlethal aid to the contras. A new round of military aid will be considered in February. But in time, regional-security talks will require the participation of the superpowers. Sooner is better.