Central America: What's really up?

There are moves of accommodation in Central America that could lead to cessation of hostilities. But there are also unmistakable and unsettling signs of continued big-power activity in the region.

To start with the positive: El Salvador's President, Jose Napoleon Duarte, and several rebel leaders have held one unprecedented meeting and agreed to discuss ways to bring about peace. The four-nation Contadora group has drawn up an overall peace plan for the region that is acceptable to Nicaragua's Sandinistas, although not, in its present form, to the United States.

And the Sandinistas are holding a national election this Sunday. It is, however, a flawed election; among other things, the main opposition candidate is not taking part.

Events of concern: The unloading of a large shipment of Soviet arms, munitions, and military parts in Nicaragua was reported in recent days. Is all of that really needed to fight the contras? Or is some of it, especially ammunition, to be smuggled into El Salvador to aid guerrillas? US and Salvadorean officials assert that this is a principal way the guerrillas obtain ammunition; guerrillas deny it.

Reports surfaced over the weekend that the United States was planning a new round of military exercises in Central America, with at least one set to be held in El Salvador. Are these exercises necessary? Earlier this year US forces held military exercises over several months in Honduras; questions then were raised about the need for such extensive maneuvers, about their effect on Honduran politics, and about the wisdom of the American construction or improvement of small bases and airports in Honduras.

The issue of the CIA's terror manual lingers. It seems hardly appropriate for an agency of the government of the United States, the world's leading democracy, to recommend the overthrow of another country's government - in this case Nicaragua's - through assassination, subversion, and deceit, which this manual tried to teach. Washington has also been involved in the mining of Nicaraguan harbors. The training of mercenaries, or volunteers, on American soil so that they could fight in Central America is questionable, too.

In recent weeks press reports have suggested that some US officials were at best lukewarm toward the Duarte peace move in El Salvador. Also, that elements of the CIA wanted to make sure Arturo Cruz did not run for the Nicaraguan presidency, on grounds that his participation would give the contest legitimacy.

Congress completed its recent session increasingly wary of administration attitudes toward Central America. But it has basically given the President what he asked for in the region, except that it cut off funding for the contras until March; Congress was concerned that failure to provide funds might cause it to be blamed for having ''lost'' Central America.

How Congress will act on Central America in the future will depend in part on how the US election comes out. But it also will be influenced by congressional assessments of what the administration is doing in the region.

Which leads to the question: Just what is Washington up to in Central America , anyway? Foremost, it ought to be vigorously waging the peace on each front that offers realistic promise. After the US election the victor should make certain that is done.

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