Nicaragua-United States standoff. Both take icier positions after Uruguay talks

Two weeks after Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas made several conciliatory gestures toward the United States, there is no sign that Managua and Washington are moving toward any real reconciliation. Nicaragua's moves were aimed at easing US pressure on the Sandinista government, which has been raised several notches over the past few months, and at discouraging congressional approval of new funding for the contra rebels, Western diplomats and government officials say.

Nicaragua's conciliatory gestures include:

Announcement of a moratorium on acquisition of new weapons systems and a promise to return 100 Cuban military advisers to Cuba.

A request to for Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra to meet with US Secretary of State George Shultz in Uruguay, where both were attending the inauguration of Uruguay's new civilian President, Julio Mar'ia Sanguinetti. Ortega and Shultz met for about an hour on March 3.

Sandinista release of freed a Nicaraguan youth who had been snatched from the Costa Rica Embassy after he had taken asylum there. The dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over the youth, who was arrested for draft resistance, disrupted the Contadora regional peace talks.

The Reagan administration charges that these actions are empty gestures. And President Ortega says his country will make no more concessions without US compromise.

US policy toward Nicaragua in recent months ``painted a picture that seems to [indicate] that the [Reagan] administration was closing down options for dialogue and was bent on stepping up the military pressure with no end in sight,'' says Alejandro Bendana, a spokesman for Nicaragua's Foreign Ministry. ``It was in that context that we threw out the peace initiatives.''

Regional peace talks sponsored by the Contadora group (Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, and Colombia) began sputtering last fall after the US objected to a draft treaty accepted by Nicaragua. The accord called for a mutual reduction of arms and foreign military advisers, but the US said the proposal did not provide adequate means for verifying reductions.

Nicaragua's arrest of the youth the Costa Rican Embassy further slowed the talks.

The Sandinistas' recent talk of compromise followed a sharp increase of US pressure. In January, the US withdrew from talks with Nicaragua in Manzanillo, Mexico. In February, the US began another series of joint military maneuvers with Honduras near the Nicaraguan border.

More recently, President Reagan and top US officials have strongly denounced the Nicaraguan government. The denunciations, analsyts say, appear to be timed to coincide with congressional debates on whether to approve the administration's request for $14 million in new aid to the contras.

``They [the Sandinistas] believe that the issue [contra aid] is symbolic of the US government's attitude toward Nicaragua -- that it's an important barometer,'' says a Western diplomat.

``The last and most formidable obstacle to greater [US] intervention has been Congress,'' says Mr. Bendana, the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry spokesman. ``And if you remove that, you can only foresee a step-up in hostilities, in tensions, and perhaps a war.''

Other pressures have led Nicaragua to make conciliatory moves. In January, the Sandinistas announced an austerity plan that cut government subsidies of prices and devalued the national currency in an attempt to salvage the nation's sputtering economy. Some analysts see the move as an effort to show flexibility and to illustrate Sandinista commitment to a mixed economy. The Sandinistas probably thought these actions would help them secure more international economic aid.

But with the US apparently unenthusiastic about the Sandinistas' show of compromise, the Sandinistas have put any other planned conciliatory measures on hold.

The Contadora negotiations are likely to resume now that the draft resistor has been returned. Secretary of State Shultz has said his meeting with Ortega does not mean bilateral talks had been reinitiated.

The Reagan administration is skeptical of the Sandinistas' measures. Shultz said the pledge to remove 100 Cuban advisers means that ``it will take until the middle of the next century for all to leave.'' Western embassies estimate that 2,000 to 3,000 Cubans are working in the Nicaraguan military or security forces. Ortega says the number is less than 800. -- 30 --

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