Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, leader of the Socialist International in Latin America, says the Nicaraguan and Salvadorean political and military predicaments have reached an impasse.
However, the Sandinistas, who have wide popular support in Nicaragua, are better positioned to make concessions to break this deadlock than is the far shakier Salvadorean regime, Mr. Pena Gomez says.
The Sandinista leaders can afford to acquiesce to many United States demands, he believes, because they don't really need their Cuban advisers; they can hold more-or-less free elections and still stay in power. In contrast, El Salvador's leaders cannot control right-wing terrorism and therefore are unable create the environment necessary for the free elections that are key to a negotiated settlement, says this influential moderate-left politician.
Coal black and strongly built, with a deep-pitched persuasive orator's voice and intense brown eyes, Pena Gomez, between mouthfuls of his ham-and-egg breakfast, warned that El Salvador is the greatest potential powder keg in Central America.
''In Salvador, there is no possibility of military victory for anyone. The guerrillas can't stop the government and the government can't stop the guerrillas,'' he says. ''It is clear that the US would not permit a guerrilla victory in Salvador,'' he says.
Pena Gomez indicates that if the US does not replace El Salvador's government with a regime that will organize free elections, the situation there could, in his view, degenerate to the point where large-scale US military intervention would occur. The real danger for US intervention, he says, is not in Nicaragua, but in El Salvador.
''It is clear that the US would not permit a guerrilla victory in Salvador,'' he says. ''There would be a US intervention for sure, and the guerrillas are clear on this point. This is why the US will not leave Honduras no matter what happens in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, this is not necessarily the case. But in Salvador, yes.''
Mr. Pena Gomez, who is also vice-president of the worldwide Socialist International (SI), has just returned from Europe, where he discussed Central America and the Caribbean with other Socialist leaders. SI Social Democratic parties are in power in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Sweden on the European continent, and in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and Venezuela in Latin America, among others.
In addition to his international SI posts, Pena Gomez heads the governing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in the Dominican Republic and is mayor of the capital city, Santa Domingo.
Pena Gomez believes Nicaragua's Sandinistas are generally willing to begin moving in a moderate direction.
''They are embarking upon the necessary steps that will define their revolution: the departure of Cuban advisers, and of the Salvadorean guerrillas, the setting up of an election date, dialogue with the press, church, and political parties.''
Pena Gomez thinks the Sandinistas probably will move ahead on this front because they can do so and still keep power. He says Nicaragua's leaders are prepared to negotiate everything but their power. He thinks, however, that although the Nicaraguans will send many of their Cuban military advisers home, US forces will not leave Honduras because their presence is tied to the Salvadorean situation. The US, he believes, will not abandon its Salvador policy simply because the Sandinistas have taken a new tack toward moderation.
Nicaragua, says Pena Gomez, will have to accept continued US military presence in neighboring countries. But in return for Nicaraguan concessions, the US should be ready to end its support of counterrevolutionary forces waging war on the Sandinista regime, he says.
''If Nicaraguans go ahead with their concessions, the Reagan administration will, whether it wants to or not, be forced by US and world public opinion to radically change its attitude toward the Sandinistas,'' Pena Gomez says.
The PRD leader doubts the US has decided to intervene in Nicaragua. ''Things'' he says, ''have come to a standstill. The US is looking hard at the situation because an intervention would entail a high cost. The Americans are bringing as much pressure to bear as they can in order to see how much they can get. But I doubt that they will move into Nicaragua.''
In El Salvador, he says, ''The only way out is the possibility of a negotiated solution which would result in elections.
''Who,'' he says, ''could organize such elections? Not the Magana government (the government of Salvador President Alvaro Magana), which is controlled by assassins and terrorists.''
Until the Salvadorean Army is purged and becomes truly neutral - and this could only be done by the United States - there can be no free elections in El Salvador, Pena Gomez says.
''If I were an opposition candidate in that country, I would not participate in the elections because any elections held now would be like those in the Dominican Republic after the US invasion in 1966 - a carnival of blood and terror.''
He says that information he had received from the rebels themselves reveals that the guerrillas understand that elections are necessary.
But the rebels will only take part in elections if a neutral provisional government is set up, he says.