As President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo returns to Guatemala today with pledges of US military aid, he leaves the Reagan administration empty-handed on the question of his support for the Nicaraguan contra rebels. On Wednesday, President Cerezo accepted the US offer of $3 million in nonlethal military aid as a gesture of Washington's faith in his country's emerging democracy. But in talks with President Reagan and other US officials, Mr. Cerezo did not budge from his tacit condemnation of US military aid to the contras fighting in Nicaragua.
It might appear a mixed signal.
But for Cerezo, who snapped a 20-year succession of military rule when he swept into office 16 months ago, the message is plain: despite warmer military ties with the US, he is staunchly committed to his independent stance in Central America.
Most observers agree Cerezo remains perched - albeit now more precariously - on the tightrope of ``active neutrality.''
But they wonder whether his tense relationship with the still-powerful military might eventually push him to side with US policy in the region.
``Guatemala is potentially crucial to the Central American equation,'' even though it shares no border with Nicaragua, says one analyst. ``If it supports American policy, it's a boost. If it becomes sympathetic to Nicaraguan interests, it becomes harmful. But it's still unclear where they will go.''
Cerezo did not come to Washington just to clarify his foreign policy. Besides his official visit, the first by a Guatemalan president since 1882, he visited major lending institutions, congressional leaders, and immigration officials in an effort to gain aid and support for Guatemala.
But what perplexed Washington was his sometimes confusing stance on Central America. Since his Jan. 14, 1986 inauguration, Cerezo has positioned himself as a ``peace broker'' in the region.
In this role, Cerezo will host a meeting of Central American presidents in Esquipulas, Guatemala in June to discuss the peace initiative of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez. The Arias plan calls for a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Central America.
Most analysts agree that Cerezo's ultimate role in the region may depend on his handling of internal tension with the military, which ceded power in the 1985 elections. Says one specialist in Guatemalan security issues: ``The military is still breathing down his neck.''
That continuing influence was highlighted last week when, at the military's insistence, Cerezo requested US assistance to ferry troops to a conflictive area. Experts point out that it was the first time since the late 1960s that US helicopters have transported Central American troops to areas of civil conflict.
Significant as it may appear, the episode did not even get a brief mention during Cerezo's visit, according to a senior administration official.
With the new military aid, Guatemala can begin buying the spare parts and helicopters needed to keep the fleet working.
However, for most observers, the boost in military aid is seen more as symbolic than substantial.
Howard J. Wiarda, director of the Center for Hemispheric Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, considers it a just reward for a country that has ``moved from being a repressive regime to a democratic government.'' But more than that, he suggests, it ``gives the civilian government a very good handle with which to deal with the military.''
Other observers disagree. Says an analyst with close ties to the Guatemalan opposition: ``If one agrees that Cerezo's main problem has been the military, then one would think the effort would be to contain it, not expand it.''