WASHINGTON — YOU could see it coming a mile away: The Central American presidents, gathered last weekend in Honduras, were going to set in motion the dismantling of the Nicaraguan contras. They had said as much in February at their last summit. A few weeks ago, during a discussion with an ambassador from the region in the lobby of the State Department, it was clear that the Central Americans were already hard at work drafting a plan for contra demobilization.
Yet the Bush administration, which hoped to keep the contras in place as leverage in southern Honduras until Nicaragua's presidential election next Feb. 25, appeared to do relatively little about it until the last minute. The President gave no impassioned speeches. And Secretary of State James Baker III's 11th-hour phone calls to friendly leaders in the region were perfunctory, say administration officials.
``The reasons are fairly obvious,'' says one US official. ``We had to follow events and policies on the ground, not what's happening in the US and in Congress. Ultimately, the Central Americans are going to act in their own interests, and why shouldn't they?''
Under the timetable agreed to at this week's summit in Tela, Honduras, the contras should disband by Dec. 8. Honduras has grown increasingly assertive about wanting to rid itself of the foreign force the United States has based on its soil - now some 25,000 guerrillas and dependents. With aid from Washington looking increasingly shaky, Honduras has feared it will inherit this potentially destabilizing, armed foreign colony.
Domestically, the Bush administration is caught in a tricky position. It faces the wrath of the right wing for appearing to allow the demise of a group President Reagan likened to the United States's Founding Fathers. But it could not swim against the clear Central American tide. The White House expressed its ambivalence by saying it was ``generally supportive'' of the Central American presidents' accord while throwing in a measure of skepticism over Nicaragua's commitment to democratic reforms.
According to a House Democratic aide on Latin affairs, the congressional crescendo on Nicaragua will start to build Sept. 6, when members return, and will climax on Nov. 30, the date when the Democratic heads of several key committees must sign off on humanitarian aid to the contras, under the provisions last March's bipartisan congressional-executive pact on Nicaragua.
``If the decision had to be taken now,'' says the aide, ``there wouldn't be an aid cutoff, but there would be a retooling.'' Specifically, he says, the provisions would be directed for demobilization and resettlement, not for maintenance of the status quo. This could help the fighters make their decision on their future, which the accord says must be voluntary. The idea is for the contras to return to Nicaragua, but the presidents acknowledge that not all will want to go home, and each agreed to take some refugees.
To some observers, the Central American leaders have actually done the Bush administration a favor. Since it took office, this administration has emphasized diplomacy, distancing itself from the Reagan-era policy of trying to overthrow Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas by proxy. The administration's recent decision to close the contras' Miami office is evidence of this.
But because of Bush's perceived need to mollify the right wing, he needed additional support to strengthen his case when it came to the question of the contras' future, says Peter Hakim, staff director of the Inter-American Dialogue. ``You now have a wide array of forces saying the contras have to be disbanded,'' says Mr. Hakim, referring not only to the five Central American leaders, but also to the 21 internal Nicaraguan opposition parties, which called for the disbanding of the contras in exchange for election-related concessions.
In another way, however, the Tela agreement is no favor at all. The administration has been trying to evolve its new policy toward Nicaragua so incrementally that conservatives would not have anything dramatic along the way to cry foul over.
``The problem with Tela,'' says the congressional aide, ``is that it creates a situation around which the right wing can mobilize. That's why we wanted the Central Americans to fudge the outcome.''
The presidents' plan sets out a definite timetable for contra demobilization - beginning with establishment of an International Support and Verification Commission by Sept. 6 - the ``fudge factor'' may still come into play. Observers say that the Tela summit was actually due to take place in May, but the Latins let the summit date slide until August. US officials hope the dismantling of the contra force built by the US eight years ago may drag out at least until Nicaragua's elections.