The surprise visit of United States Secretary of State George Shultz to Managua to meet with Nicaragua's leader has raised a faint possibility that tensions might be relaxed between the two nations.
One Nicaraguan official expressed guarded optimism that the trip might eventually lead to some improvement in relations.
Mr. Shultz stopped at Managua airport June 1 after attending the inauguration of El Salvador's new President, Jose Napoleon Duarte, and before he went to Europe to join President Reagan. At the airport he met with Nicaragua's junta coordinator, Daniel Ortega Saavedra.
The most concrete result of this visit is an agreement to hold exploratory talks between the two countries. The US would be represented by President Reagan's special envoy to Central America, Harry W. Schlaudeman, while Nicaragua would be represented by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Victor Hugo Tinoco.
The visit came as a surprise because relations between Managua and Washington have been at a low point ever since the CIA backed the mining of Nicaraguan harbors earlier this year. To many observers, the Reagan administration's Central American policy has become very hard line in recent months. Washington has been more interested in toppling the leftist Sandinista regime than in coming to a modus vivendi with it.
This view was reinforced by the removal in April of US Ambassador Anthony Quainton, who argued within the adminstration that it was possible for the US to ''cut a deal'' with the Sandinistas.
Mr. Quainton's stand, according to adminstration sources, led to his removal following a clash with members of the Kissinger Commission on Central America, on the grounds that he suffered from ''clientitis,'' or over-identification with a country by a diplomat assigned to it.
Does the surprise visit represent a real change in US policy? Or is it a move designed more as a gesture to public concern before the November elections?
While it is widely known that Shultz and the State Department have wanted to explore the possiblility of detente, White House positions have been harder line. Has this changed, or is this trip largely a State Department initiative with harder-line members of the administration seeing the trip more as a public relations gesture? It is too early to tell.
The visit came after a setback for the administration's Nicaraguan policy. The House voted down a measure to provide an additional $21 million in aid to US-supported anti-Sandinista forces. This week the Senate, which already approved the funding, is expected to decide whether to press the issue in conference with the House or to let it die.
The visit also comes after Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado's visit to Washington in May, when he stressed his view that US policy mistakenly relies on military rather than diplomatic solutions.
US officials accompanying Shultz said the visit was part of an effort to strengthen the Contadora group, consisting of the five Central American countries and four outside mediators, including Mexico.
However, both US and Nicaraguan observers believe the Contadora process is, at best, a convenient structure in which to house a deal which must first be struck between Nicaragua and the US.
In meeting with Ortega, Shultz put forth the US concerns: 1) stop all aid to Salvadorean guerrillas; 2) reduce Nicaragua's military forces; 3) remove Cuban and East-bloc military advisers; 4) fulfill Sandinista promises to democratize Nicaragua.
Last January, high-ranking Administration officials, privately discussing these same points, said that the crucial ones were cessation of aid to Salvadorean guerrillas and removal of Cuban advisers. After that came a reduction in Nicaragua's military forces, and very much at the bottom were demands for Nicaragua's internal democratization.
Nicaraguan officials welcomed the talks, but refused to ''negotiate internal Nicaraguan affairs'' with US officials.