Central American peace process put into deep freeze

The Central American peace negotiations known as the Contadora talks have suffered a sharp setback. The indefinite postponement of the Contadora meeting planned for Thursday and today has put the whole peace process into deep freeze for at least several months, according to well-informed foreign policy analysts here.

The underlying cause of the postponement, these analysts say, is much deeper than the reason given publicly -- a dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over Nicaraguan border incursions and an incident at the Costa Rican Embassy in Managua.

This dispute, they say, is merely a pretext for covering up currently irreconcilable differences between Nicaragua on the one hand and the United States, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica on the other. And so far the four Contadora mediators (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama) have been unable to bridge the differences.

In addition, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama are tiring in their efforts to resolve the differences, according to Mario Arriola, the politically moderate main Contadora analyst for one of the top think-tanks here called CIDE (Center for Research and Economic Teaching). Mr. Arriola and other such analysts in touch with the peace process say the three countries are beginning to accuse Mexico of pushing too hard and of turning Contadora into a ``Mexican national project.''

More importantly, Arriola and other analysts here and in the US say that the Reagan administration is showing little enthusiasm for the talks at this stage. Until a change occurs in either the US position or that of the four Contadora countries, the analysts believe there is little chance of the talks being reconvened. Thus, they say, the talks, if not entirely dead, at least will be dormant for the next few months.

The current stymieing of the talks dates from a surprise decision by Nicaragua last September to sign an agreement that had been drafted by the Contadora group and the other Central American countries.

Since neither the US nor its Central American allies ever expected Nicaragua to agree to sign, they had not followed the drafting process very carefully. Instead, they had permitted the inclusion of several points that were basically unacceptable to them.

Chief among these points was an agreement calling for the rapid withdrawal of all foreign military advisers from the whole region. This would have included US advisers in El Salvador and Honduras as well as Cubans in Nicaragua. It also called for the withdrawal of all foreign military bases in the region. This would have meant the closure of US bases in Honduras.

The US and its Central American allies rejected these points, say politically moderate US and Mexican analysts, first because they did not trust the Nicaraguans to live up to their end of the deal, and, second, because the Reagan administration was not interested in trading off its advisers and bases in Honduras and El Salvador for Cuban advisers in Nicaragua.

In October, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica came up with a counterproposal at a Contadora meeting in Honduras. This called for the withdrawal of Cuban advisers before the withdrawal of other advisers in the region.

The counterproposal also called for verification to be carried out, not by the Contadora four, but by the Central American countries themselves. According to Arriola, Washington's Central American allies believe that the Central Americans themselves would be more vigilant than the Contadora nations, and also more likely to accuse the Nicaraguans of violations. Nicaragua, as was expected, refused to sign the revised agreement. So the Contadora process entered a period of stagnation.

During the winter, according to Arriola and US congressional foreign policy staff advisers, the Contadora four came back to El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica with counter-counterproposals. These urged the US allies to modify their stand and accept a compromise agreement more acceptable to the Nicaraguans. However, according to these analysts, the Central American countries, supported by the US, refused to budge.

The dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua that triggered the cancellation of this week's Contadora session was sparked by the Nicaraguans allegedly violating the right of the Costa Rican government to give asylum in its embassy in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital -- a right that is taken very seriously in Latin America.

According to the Costa Rican government, Nicaraguan police forcibly entered the embassy and dragged off a young Nicaraguan Army deserter. The Nicaraguan government denies this, saying it picked up the deserter on the street.

Relations between the two countries were also worsened by the alleged incursion of Nicaraguan forces onto Costa Rican territory.

Costa Rica, supported by El Salvador, has declared that as long as this issue remain unresolved it will not participate in the Contadora talks.

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