Central American leaders accuse US of stonewalling peace plan. Envoy Habib pushes for contra participation in regional peace talks
Central American charges that the Reagan administration is trying to torpedo Costa Rica's peace plan for the region are being strongly echoed in Washington. Last week after returning from a recent trip through Central America, Philip Habib, President Reagan's special envoy, addressed a special meeting of high-ranking senators and their aides.
Participants in the meeting say Mr. Habib told them ``the US would oppose any plan agreed to by the Central American presidents, be it the Arias plan, or any other that did not take the administration's views and US security interests into account.''
Habib further said, according to a participant, that the trip's primary goal was to make this point clear to the Central Americans. He stated, the participant added, that if the administration felt its views and interests were not reflected in regional agreements it would continue to fund the Nicaraguan contra rebels despite agreements reached by the leaders.
Habib also told the senators that contra leaders wanted to participate in the meeting of five Central American leaders at Esquipulas, Guatemala, initially scheduled for this week. The meeting has been postponed to August. Habib, who indicated he supported that position, said he had recently visited Miami to advise the contras on what their negotiating stances should be.
Asked about the possibility of contra participation, one close adviser to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez said it was ``totally out of the question.'' A top official close to Guatemalan President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo responded that it was ``outrageous.''
US pressures Duarte, official says
This same Guatemalan official confirmed that Habib, during his recent El Salvador trip, had been responsible for getting President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte to ask for a postponement of the meeting. The official said President Duarte personally told Guatemala's president the reason he asked for the postponement was because of US pressure. Analysts say Duarte bowed to US pressure because his government is so dependent on the US.
There has been a spate of Latin American press reports speculating on Duarte's role. According to observers, his prestige in the region has suffered a great blow as a result of the incident.
Washington observers and senior Central American officials said the final US objective was not to delay the Esquipulas meeting, but to make sure that it doesn't take place unless it does so on terms very favorable to the US.
The US offensive against the Arias plan may be pushing Costa Rica and Guatemala to take more independent positions on the Central American question.
Adolfo Aguilar, senior associate for Mexican and Central American affairs at the Carnegie Endowment, says: ``I have little doubt that this affair is leading to a certain rupture between the Reagan administration and some of its Central American allies. This is in part due to the perception by many Central Americans that since the Democrats gained control of Congress and Irangate, the Reagan administration is basically crippled.''
This view is supported by highly placed Central Americans.
Loose coalition could emerge
A top Arias adviser said, ``It is very likely that what will emerge from all of this is a loose alliance between Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua which will push for a settlement with or without El Salvador. Honduras's position will also probably become less pro-US. Younger Honduran officers, now dominant in the Army, sense US weakness and have taken a more nationalistic position.''
``As for us,'' said the Costa Rican official, ``the decay of the Reagan administration has changed a lot of things. We know the administration has to put up with us speaking badly of their policies and still give us aid. If it tries to cut off aid because of our criticisms, we will portray ourselves as the virgin of Central America, the only true democracy in the region which is being aggressed by the administration's heavy handedness. After talks with Democrats in Congress, I believe they [the Democrats] would love it if the administration tried to cut back aid now.''
Mr. Arias's adviser said the Costa Rican president was taking this hard line despite US attempts to intimidate Arias during his US visit last week.
This was most noticeable in his visit to the White House, when, say Costa Rican officials and US congressional sources, Arias was met by a formidable line up of President Reagan, Vice-President George Bush, National Security Council chief Frank Carlucci, White House chief of staff Howard Baker, and State Department officials Lawrence Whitehead and Elliott Abrams. They proceeded to give Arias ``a severe 65-minute lecture on his mistakes.''
The administration's tactics seem to have backfired. As one senior Central American diplomat in Washington said, ``It is unprecedented to haul up the President of another country and read him the riot act in front of half the US Cabinet.''
The top Guatemalan official indicated Guatemala was also willing to take an increasingly independent stance.
He said that if necessary, Guatemala would push for a meeting of Central American leaders without Duarte. He said Honduras would participate in such a meeting. But if it didn't, the official believed a meeting of only Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua would be a ``serious possibility.''
Meanwhile, Nicaragua's president said he would attend the August meeting.