IDEALLY, by the Thursday deadline for the Arias peace plan, democratic reforms should be in place, amnesties declared, states of emergency lifted, and steps toward negotiated cease-fires begun. In practice, leaders of the five nations will spell out their plans. Between now and Jan. 5, when they assess the progress, more surges and stalls are sure to occur as the trust evolves which can make such an agreement work. Both the Sandinistas and the United States need to do more.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra is expected, on his return from Moscow this week, to announce some easing of his nation's state of emergency and a partial amnesty of political prisoners; it is not enough. The Sandinistas must also shuck their stubborn resistance to holding even indirect talks with the contras aimed at a cease-fire. Much hinges on that first step. Without it, Honduras, for instance, says it will not clear contra bases from its territory.
Such talks have been under way in Guatemala and El Salvador. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez, who suggests using Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, a critic of the Sandinistas, as an intermediary, says Nicaragua's intransigence leaves the peace process at an impasse. The Sandinistas, who have declared a unilateral cease-fire in four small zones, foolishly went on record last week as unwilling at any time or place to hold direct or indirect political dialogue with contra leaders; it would, they say, legitimize the contras. For a nation spending a major portion of its budget to put down the five-year-old civil war against the contras, the argument carries little weight. An internal Sandinista dispute is more likely the reason.
The cardinal, who heads Nicaragua's National Reconciliation Commission, recently met secretly in New York with contra leaders; his offer to help should be accepted.
The US should also agree to talk directly with the Sandinistas. If Washington's chief concerns are that Managua not become a launching pad for Soviet or Cuban intervention in the region and not support subversive groups in other nations, a direct US-Nicaraguan dialogue is the way to go.
The US should also consider an alternative to continued support of the contras. The peace accord specifically bars aid by foreign nations to resistance forces. Partly in deference to that but more in response to pleading by Central America's leaders and to its reading of the congressional climate, the administration will delay its new $270 million aid request until January. Mr. Ortega, however, views even that as a sign that the US is trying to undermine the accord's credibility.
The contras are a limited bargaining chip, effective only while talks are under way. Much as they might like to, neither the US nor the contras can change Nicaragua's government. Mr. Arias insists he would never support military action or renewed aid to the contras; if the Sandinistas do not do their part, he would press instead for global sanctions.
The US should commit itself to resettling and reintegrating as many contras as possible back into Nicaragua and helping to reconstruct the region.
Meanwhile, the Sandinistas should roll up their sleeves and talk with the contras about a cease-fire; to achieve its goals, the US should also sit down with the Sandinistas.