In spite of some technical progress in a meeting last week in Panama, the Contadora Central American peace process remains stalemated. But regional analysts say that when either the United States or Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas change their policies toward each other and the time is ripe for negotiations, the Contadora group could become a useful negotiating tool. (Contadora is made up of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and the five Central American nations except Belize.)
The US believes it can overthrow the Sandinistas or force them to share power with Nicaraguan rebels, called ``contras.'' The Sandinistas believe they can withstand US pressure and refuse to negotiate with the contras.
``The Contadora process might start to work a year or so from now when the US realizes that its present pressure tactics won't change the Nicaraguan government and that a full-blown US invasion is impossible because of domestic political considerations within the US,'' one senior Latin American diplomat says.
This diplomat and other Latin American diplomats say that if the US decides to negotiate with the Sandinistas (as they think it probably will), the US will, as the senior diplomat said, ``probably use Contadora as a screen behind which to conduct the negotiations.''
The point at the moment, according to regional analysts, is that the US does not want to see any sort of peace agreement in Nicaragua -- either a bilateral US-Nicaraguan one or a more general Contadora settlement (which would imply a series of treaties between all the Central American countries) -- unless the Sandinistas completely modify the structure of their government by talking and eventually sharing power with the contras.
Because of the influence the US wields through its three Central American allies (Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica), and their ability to block any peace agreements, analysts describe the US as the ``great silent partner'' in Contadora, which was formed in 1983.
At present foreign policymakers in the US would rather see no treaty at all than a treaty which doesn't meet US goals of substantially changing the nature of the Sandinista regime, says Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of Latin American Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite some technical progress made last week, where the Contadora foreign ministers made small advances in discussions on general economic and political declarations, the basic situation remains unchanged. ``They can continue to make progress on technical issues, but those are only details in a framework which is basically stuck,'' says Ms. Purcell, who has published a recent study of Contadora.
She says for the moment US officials are confident that their pressure tactics on Nicaragua have a strong chance of working. They say that contra forces are growing and could become a serious threat to the Sandinistas. Therefore, she does not see the US moving toward the Contadora agreement in the next few months.
The key to Contadora, she says, is what happens in Nicaragua within the next year or so. If contra strength grows greatly, it is expected that the Sandinistas might back down and begin to negotiate with the contras.
If this does not happen then it is possible that the US might shift its policy and use Contadora to come to an agreement with the Sandinistas. Purcell says that a US invasion is unlikely.
She says that in order to reach a Contadora agreement, Nicaragua must back down from its present position that it will not accept any changes in a provisional accord arrived at last September. That accord is unacceptable to the US and its Central American allies, because it states that the US would have to stop aiding the contras before Sandinista troop reductions or the departure of foreign advisers (including Cubans in Nicaragua) took place.
Some regional observers had hoped that the Lima group (Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay), formed in July to assist Contadora, might help resolve the Central American crisis by sending South American peace-keeping forces to Nicaragua's borders. Regional observers say this is unlikely at this time.
As one senior Latin diplomat stated, ``There is little concrete impact that the Lima group can have at this time. It's main function would be to act as a break on potentially negative US actions, to let the US know that if it invades Central America it would have to deal with all of the major countries in the region.''