Central American leaders agree time is ripe for peace in region. But they differ over plan's chances of success

Central America's foreign ministers are meeting here today to hammer out details of a peace plan that they regard as their best, and possibly last, chance to halt the region's near-decade of conflict. ``This plan offers opportunities that have never been there for anyone,'' says one senior Salvadorean official with enthusiasm. ``Now they are open to everyone.''

Not everyone is so upbeat, as dozens of interviews with government officials, rebels, diplomats, and other political analysts around the region have shown.

The moods in the three countries most directly affected range from guarded optimism in Nicaragua, through fear in El Salvador that its conflict is rooted more deeply than the plan can reach, to frank dismay in Honduras.

Few observers in the region dare to hope that the Aug. 7 Guatemala accord will work as the ``harmonious and indivisible whole'' it says it is.

A feeling has spread, however, that the treaty does hold out promise in some areas.

So far, the peace plan's best chances appear to lie in Nicaragua, for which the accord was most directly intended.

It is in Nicaragua, too, that the stakes are highest: For the United States, the centerpiece of the administration's policy in the region, the contra rebels, are at risk. For the Sandinistas, the future of their eight-year-old revolution hangs in the balance.

President Reagan's forthcoming request to the US Congress for $270 million more in aid to the rebels, hanging like a cloud over the meeting here, underlines Washington's distaste for the plan. That, officials worry, does not bode well for their efforts.

``There is a contradiction between what the Central Americans are saying and what the United States is saying. It is a motive for great concern,'' says El Salvador's foreign minister, Ricardo Acevedo Peralta.

For the sake of peace, the five Presidents who signed the Central American peace plan in Guatemala last month showed themselves more ready to compromise than President Reagan. They have not called for an end to Soviet military aid to the Sandinistas, for example, nor have they insisted on an immediate reduction in the Nicaraguan Army. Nicaragua has the largest army in the region.

That compromise, however, benefits US allies as well as its enemies. It confers legitimacy on all the existing governments in the region at the expense of insurgent forces, such as El Salvador's guerrillas - the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN).

That the US administration has lost its habitual dominance over Central American diplomacy - at least temporarily - is not in doubt in the region's political circles.

``Things have gotten out of control [for the United States],'' comments a Western diplomat in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. ``Latin American magic has taken over, and Uncle Sam has been left behind.''

Diplomats say that today's meeting, in which Central American foreign ministers will meet senior officials from eight other Latin American nations involved in the search for peace, could show how far US allies are prepared to stretch the political will they expressed in Guatemala last month in order to accommodate Mr. Reagan's misgivings.

As the foreign ministers get down to nitty-gritty details of how the peace plan will work, the scope for such maneuvering is wide. Joining up the dots of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez's outline is expected to provoke considerable conflict.

For example, Rub'en Zamora, leader of the rebel Salvadorean political grouping - the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR) - has expressed a willingness to go home.

So has Nicaraguan rebel leader Alfonso Robelo.

The Salvadorean government welcomes Mr. Zamora's return as long as he renounces all ties with his military allies, the FMLN.

Mr. Robelo says he will go to Nicaragua only as a representative of the contra leadership.

Will the Salvadorean authorities relax their conditions, or will the Nicaraguan government impose similar ones on Robelo?

On many issues, the plan looks different depending on the angle of view.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra says the Sandinistas are not obliged to democratize unless the US Congress stops aid to the contras.

Honduran President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo has been quoted as saying that the US Congress is not obliged to cut off aid unless the Sandinistas democratize.

Costa Rican President Arias hopes to resolve such attitude problems by fixing a simultaneous deadline, Nov. 7, that everyone must comply with.

But the tactics of moves such as cease-fires have yet to be discussed.

Today's talks are also expected to open up a nest of accusations and counteraccusations that ``could well sour the atmosphere,'' says one European diplomat in San Salvador.

Foreign Minister Acevedo Peralta said last week he would present Managua with a list of 72 alleged instances of Sandinista aid to the Salvadorean guerrillas, which is illegal under the plan. The Sandinistas are expected to respond with charges that the contras fly supply planes from the Salvadorean Air Force headquarters.

If the plan breaks down in a welter of recriminations, officials worry, the region could degenerate into a further spiral of violence.

``We are now playing our last card for a negotiated peace in Central America,'' Foreign Minister Acevedo Peralta says. ``Anything could happen after that.''

Whether affairs will come to such a pass, no one is prepared to guess. ``The outcome of this process is by no means certain,'' another European diplomat comments.

``Peace efforts stagnated for a year, and now we have a dynamic situation. No one knows what will come out of it,'' the diplomat adds.

``But there is a good chance that Central America will not look the same at the end of this process,'' the European diplomat adds.

The peace plan is beset by obstacles, and its prospects are clouded by doubts.

But for one top adviser to Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte, a bit of positive thinking is in order.

``Skeptics on the right say communists never keep their promises; skeptics on the left say the US will never allow this plan to work,'' Mr. Duarte's adviser points out.

``It will only work if we proceed on the basis that it will. We have to move forward thinking that we can succeed,'' the adviser adds.

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