WASHINGTON — In one of his final interviews as secretary of state, George Shultz expressed regret over not achieving more in Central America. Already there are signs that his successor, James Baker, may try to rectify this apparent shortcoming. According to an adviser to President Bush's foreign policy team, Central America will be an early priority for Secretary Baker. Another United States official points to ``a major change in tone'' on the issue. ``Baker has good political instincts,'' a ranking State Department official says. ``Obviously there will be a diplomatic track [initiative].''
In his Senate confirmation hearings last week, Mr. Baker expressed support for the Central American peace plan, calling it ``a good platform for peace,'' and mentioned by name its author, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, with whom the Reagan administration had tense relations. This was a special gesture from Baker, the official says.
Taken in its totality, Baker's testimony on Central America - one of the most divisive issues in US foreign policy - was a study in deft verbal choreography.
``All of them (Central American nations) must be free of the fear of subversive neighbors,'' Baker said. ``All of them must be able to share in an economic development plan, perhaps assisted by our European and Japanese allies.''
``All of them'' would include Nicaragua, a rare suggestion from a US policymaker that Nicaragua's Soviet-backed Sandinista rulers deserve treatment equal to their nominally democratic neighbors.
Then came a qualification: ``But none of this can occur unless the promises of democracy and security become a reality,'' Baker said, following later with statements of support for the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
According to the State Department official, Baker has left himself a lot of maneuvering room, with two constraints for the foreseeable future: no request for renewed military aid to the contras and no bilateral talks with the Sandinistas. Both actions would provide flash points for partisan tensions, which Mr. Bush and Baker want to avoid.
Another lightning rod for partisan sensitivities, Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, has departed the scene. He is the only one of the five regional assistant secretaries asked to leave before Bush's inauguration. State Department insiders predict much more front-office management of policy under the new regime.
``We've seen the end of fiefdoms within State,'' one official says. ``Abrams's replacement will be on a closer tether.''
Latin diplomats and Capitol Hill aides are hopeful that after several months in suspended animation, US policy may be set to move forward. They're watching to see how quickly Abrams is replaced. They will see the speed of his replacement as a clue to the new administration's priorities. Events demand immediate action, they say. El Salvador, which survives on US dollars, is growing increasingly violent and polarized as it approaches its March 19 presidential election. Nicaraguan refugees are pouring northward. The contras are restless in southern Honduras.
Central America's four democratic presidents say there is no point in meeting with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra until the Bush administration sets the direction of its Central America policy. They openly say that they have gone as far as they can on their own with the 1987 peace plan, and that they need constructive US involvement.
``President Arias has said he wants to start a dialogue with the new administration,'' Costa Rican Ambassador Danilo Jimenez said after the presidents' Jan. 15 meeting was postponed. ``But,'' he adds, ``there's no one on the other side of the confessional.''
The Feb. 2 inauguration of Carlos Andres Perez as president of Venezuela, where leaders from around the Western Hemisphere will gather, now has heightened importance. The five Central American foreign ministers plan to meet Feb. 2 to set the agenda for the presidents' meeting, expected sometime in February.
High-level sources in Costa Rica have told Ambassador Jimenez that Secretary of State Baker may accompany Vice-President Dan Quayle to the inauguration, though State Department spokesmen knew of no such plans. Earlier word that only Mr. Quayle would represent the US disappointed some Latins, who called it a missed opportunity for the US to begin a diplomatic push. Mr. Perez himself plans to play a role in regional affairs.
Regardless of what Baker does Feb. 2, the US has ``an extraordinary opportunity to win the enthusiastic support of every democratic country in the Western Hemisphere with a bold initiative,'' says a congressional aide with long experience in Central American policy. ``If the administration pursues a broad bipartisan plan that would deal with everyone's security concerns, put political pressure on the Sandinistas, and make a serious attempt to deal with debt, it would electrify Latin democrats.''
Such a plan, the aide says, would necessarily include an agreement among the US, Nicaragua, Nicaragua's neighbors, and the Sandinistas' opponents, internal and external, and would contain a specific calendar of requirements for democratization and a mechanism for verification.
The Sandinistas are in desperate economic straits, and their visible wooing of President Bush indicates they may be ready to deal. ``If they don't go along, they face regional isolation,'' the aide says. ``If they sign and don't keep their word, there would be outrage around the hemisphere and the possibility of more military aid to the contras.''
A former Bush campaign adviser, speaking for himself and not the new administration, stresses the importance of keeping the contras around for leverage.
``Never count out contra aid,'' he says. ``The Sandinistas have shown they'll make concessions only when there is a real threat of a rearmed resistance. Supplying aid to the contras is not just some ideological extremist viewpoint.... Remember, we aren't getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan with the Gandhi plan.''