Sandinista gesture: more than meets the eye

AT first glance the announcement by the Nicaraguan government sounds as though it had decided to end its nearly six-year fight with the country's 5,000 Miskito Indians. The Miskitos, the announcement says, will be allowed gradually to return to their homelands. But as so often happens in international affairs, there is more to the issue than is immediately visible. At base the outcome thus far of communications between the Sandinistas and the Miskitos is a warning to other nations or international groups, which properly seek to negotiate an end to the contra war, that Nicaragua's Sandinista government is not easily persuaded to be flexible on the really difficult negotiating points. The Miskitos and Sandinistas are right back where they started: at odds on all major issues.

Nearly six years ago the Sandinistas drove the Miskitos out of their traditional homelands and destroyed their villages, saying in effect that they wanted the Indians to become integrated into modern life.

But the Miskitos wanted to continue their traditional way of life. They took up arms against the Sandinistas and have been fighting a guerrilla action separate from that of the better-known contras. In recent months Miskito leaders have been negotiating with the Sandinistas. They have demanded virtual autonomy in their homelands, a demilitarized region, and supervision by an independent council of any accord with the Sandinistas.

For months hopes of accommodation were raised, largely by the Sandinistas, who indicated a settlement was likely. A cease-fire, later violated, was signed.

But when talks reached the crucial issues, the Sandinistas would not yield at all and called the demands ``arbitrary and absurd.'' The Miskitos charged the government with trying to impose a cease-fire without addressing any Indian concerns. This week the talks broke off.

Two days later the Sandinistas announced that Miskitos could gradually return to their tribal lands.

To go back would ask a lot of the Miskitos. There is no indication they would have any degree of autonomy. They would not be permitted at this time to return to some of the homelands. In addition, they would be returning to villages largely laid waste by the Sandinistas, and would have to rebuild them almost entirely.

The Sandinistas have an economic reason for wanting the Miskitos to return: They hope they will help revitalize Nicaragua's sagging fishing industry, thus aiding the seriously damaged national economy. In the past the Miskitos, from their traditional lands, caught sizable quantities of shrimp and lobster.

In part the Sandinista offer is a gesture toward the Miskitos. It also is in the Sandinistas' interest to remove some military pressure by settling with them. The Contadora nations are trying to work out an end to violence in Central America. They might note the way the Sandinistas have conducted negotiations with the Miskitos: The atmospherics of progress exists, yet there is an unwillingness to compromise on crucial issues.

The proper way to settle the Nicaraguan-contra fighting is through negotiations, preferably by the Contadora nations. Yet as the Miskito situation shows, that will not be easy: Contadora nations will need to be as firm as the Sandinistas. And they should insist on guarantees, something their first proposal lacked: No one should try to rely on promises or atmospherics.

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