While many informed observers continue to fear the possibility of a generalized war in Central America, recent events have strengthened the peace efforts of the Contadora group -- Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama.
The Contadora group has been trying to work out a series of treaties based on principles agreed to in October by all parties to the Central America conflict. The last meeting toward this goal was held on the Panamanian island of Contadora on Dec. 20 and 21.
Most observers believe that although the Contadora treaties themselves may not lead to a concrete solution of the region's conflicts, "a settlement," as a State Department official put it, "may come on the margins of the Contadora process."
But United States officials do not expect Contadora and Central American countries to arrive at a treaty or treaties that will in and of themselves resolve the areas' conflicts. As a high-level US official put it, "If this is going to be resolved through formal treaties, they will be the world's most complicated ones, involving massive verification which will be very difficult to work out."
The US values the Contadora group, however, because it is a forum through which the disputing Central American countries and the US canexchange views. According to the same high-level US official, "Contadora ia positive because it helps to crystalize peoples' thinking as to what can usefully be discussed in negotiation. Contadora is setting the agenda for finding the peace in Central America."
But some doubt the extent of US commitment to the Contadora group. A Latin American diplomat says, "The US has followed a two-track policy. On the one hand , it has supported Contadora; on the other hand, they have followed aggressive policies in Nicaragua. They have followed two options and are waiting to see which one is more successful. If, because of internal political reasons, an aggressive military policy in Central America won't work out, they can always fall back on the Contadora option without appearing to have changed much."
The signing by all the Central American countries of a 21-point agreement of basic principles for peace in lateOctober has given new prestige to the Contadora groups as a forum in which further efforts for peace in the region might be achieved, officials say. And the faint stirrings of hope for an improvement in United States-Nicaraguan relations which have arisen in the wake of recent conciliatory signals from Nicaragua have strengthend the Contadora group's position.
The 21 points represented a breakthough, because for the first time all parties to the Central American conflict, including Nicaragua, had agreed on general principles for a settlement. The principles call for: verifiable arms reduction, patrolling of borders to stop the flow of guerillas and arms, withdrawal of all foreign advisers, respect for human rights, and the establishment of democratic governments in all countries.
Since October, the Contadora four have been attempting to develop a series of treaties based on the 21 principles. The effort has always aimed to evolve a series of individual treaties between antagonistic nations in the region, and between the US and Nicaragua. Before and during the last meeting held in Panama in late December, the group had to deal with Honduran objections centering around the timetable for withdrawal of foreign advisers, and verification procedures.
The negotiations, however, continue, with one of the Contadora foreign ministers scheduled to travel around the region over the next few days in order to discuss the treaties. The next meetingwill be held in mid-January.
The US appreciation of Contadora rose in October when Nicaragua, among others , signed the 21-point declaration. According to US officials, the Sandinistas were pressured into signing the document by Mexico, Nicaragua's main oil supplier. The US has been ambivalent about Mexico's role in Contadora because the administration perceives Mexico as the most radical of the four. In addition to supplying oil, Mexico is giving Nicaragua substantial economic assistance.
Most observers say Mexico supports Nicaragua as part of a compact the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has with its own left wing. The government is quite conservative but it has a radical foreign policy to mask growing inequalities in Mexico itself, observers say.
Mexico's stance, these observers say, is moderated by its dependence on US aid and its fear of Cuban and radical influences on the Mexican poor.
Mexican officials describe the Reagan administration policy as heavy-handed and guaranteed to drive those struggling for social justice into communist hands. They belive Mexico can moderate the Nicaraguan position by helping its leaders, and strengthen the lessradical fraction.
Most Latin American observers feel that as the closest regional power and the only one with good lines of communication to all sides of the conflict, Mexico must be a key player in the Contadora process. If Mexico isalienated, it will block US policy on Nicaragua and step up aid the Sandinastas in the face of the Reagan administration's "economic war" against them, these observers say.
The US has encouraged Venezeula and Columbia to take thelead in the Contadora group. The Venezuelans, although providing Nicaragua with some assistance, have been cooler to the Sandinistas than Mexico. Jaime Lusinchi, head of the moderate Democratic Action Party, recently became Venezeula's president. Socialist International sources predict that Mr. Lusinchi will move his country closer to Mexico's position. But US officials, expect little change in the Venezuelan positions on Nicaragua, although there might be some shift on El Salvador.
Observers say Colombia and Panama are run by fairly conservative, establishment-oriented governments. They speak with all parties involved but their influence on the Sandinistas is limited.
Whatever their politics, the Contadora countries have as a group shifted from their initial emphasis. Orginally the group sought to develop treaties dealing with external relations among the Central American states; now it stresses the need for greater democratization in both left-wing Nicaragua and right-wing El Salvador.
Most observers feel that the key to a serious breakthrough lies in Washington and to a lesser degree in Managua.
They see that the US is now more favorably disposed toward the Contadora effort because , as a high-level US official put it, "Contadora is bringing Nicaragua to a new sense of reality."
Latin observers believe that if Nicaragua continues to make concessions -- and thereby increased hopes for agreement -- parties to the conflict could find the Contadora process a useful one. But in the case of El Salvador, Washington's unwillingness to alter the power structure sufficiently to stop the terrorism of the right and to induce the left to participate in elections has created a stalemate which the Contadora process cannot resolve, these observers say.