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Contra War Overshadows Summit

Ortega announcement that he'll suspend cease-fire angers Bush more than Latin leaders. COSTA RICA MEETING

By J. D. GannonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 1989



SAN JOSE, Costa Rica

THE Pan-American summit meeting here was supposed to inaugurate a ``new era'' of cooperation in relations among the Americas, according to its host, President Oscar Arias S'anchez. But the largest gathering of American leaders in 22 years ended under the shadow of what is perhaps the quintessential example of the ``old era'' - the Nicaraguan contra war.

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When Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra announced he would not renew a 19-month-old cease-fire with US-financed contra rebels, the focus of the meeting reverted from the theme of new relations and cooperation to the eight-year-old conflict. And the language of the meeting changed from one of multilateralism and equality to the cold war rhetoric of insults and accusations.

``There is a difference between a lessening of tensions and a new era,'' says a Western diplomat here. ``What we have still is the former ... and while Arias is trying to launch a new era, the reality of the former keeps intruding.''

Inside the meeting itself the presidents dicussed planned agenda items such as drugs, democracy, and debt. No declaration was issued. A few smaller multi-lateral and bilateral meetings were held on various topics, such as discussion on a unified policy for coffee.

And when the summit ended Saturday, the major story was the hard words Bush had for Ortega.

In a press conference, Bush harshly attacked Ortega, accusing him of ending the cease-fire as a plot to postpone or cancel elections next February. He also repeatedly referred to Ortega as ``that little man,'' and described the Nicaraguan as an ``unwanted animal at a garden party.'' (He was referring to a skunk, a term used for Ortega in an earlier White House press pool report.)

It was highly reminiscent of former President Ronald Reagan's repeated references to the ``dictator in designer glasses.''

Referring to Ortega's announcement, a source in the Sandinista delegation said he had hoped to deliver the ``maximum shock'' by announcing the cease-fire lapse at this high profile parley.

As with most such forums, notes a Western ambassador contacted by phone in Managua, the Sandinistas chose to push their own agenda at the meeting.

``The question was, `Was anything going to be done at all about the [contra] demobilization plan by Dec. 8 [when it is supposed to be completed]),''' the Sandinista source said. ``Things were going along far too complacently. [So Ortega] decided to take the risk'' in making the announcement ``and see if something would get done,'' he added.

The five Central American presidents signed an agreement to demobilize and repatriate the rebels at a meeting last August in Honduras. Although the demobiliztion was not to be on the agenda for the summit, the Sandinista source added, the Nicaraguans' strategy was ``to take the focus [of interntional attention] on the conference and put it on demobilizing the contras.''

Also, ``it seemed Bush was coming down here just to promote [Nicaraguan opposition leader] Violeta [Barrios de Chamorro],'' he added, referring to Bush's breakfast meeting with her Saturday.

Mrs. Chamorro also had a high profile at the opening session of the meeting and the luncheon that followed. ``Well, the Violeta thing now seems to have been lost in the dust,'' following the news of the lapsed cease-fire, the Sandinista source said with satisfaction.

The Sandinista gamble, like other risky moves in the game of regional diplomacy, may pay off with little damage to them for having usurped the limelight from Arias and the generally ``feel-good'' atmosphere of the summit, experts here say.

Although the Sandinistas know the move will not play well in Washington, immediate reaction to the announcement from several members of Latin delegations was not as cutting as the US response.