The Sandinistas' decision to negotiate with contra rebel leaders has removed a key stumbling block to Central America's peace process, friends and foes of the Nicaraguan government agree. When President Daniel Ortega Saavedra announced the change of heart to a mass Sandinista rally here Thursday night, he stunned his audience into doubtful silence. But the concession has won a warmer response from key players in the poker game of regional peace.
``This is a very positive step,'' commented Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez, who had argued forcefully that Managua's refusal to talk with the contra rebels was leading his peace plan into an ``impasse.''
``We have all agreed to the negotiations, and plan to move ahead as quickly as possible,'' said Adolfo Calero, one of the six top contra leaders. ``We are absolutely pleased'' about Ortega's choice of Roman Catholic primate Miguel Obando y Bravo as mediator in the indirect cease-fire negotiations, Mr. Calero added.
In their six-year struggle against the Sandinistas, the contras have often invoked the name of the cardinal, one of the government's staunchest critics. ``There is no man in Nicaragua with greater integrity and love of democracy,'' Calero said.
Cardinal Obando y Bravo himself is ``looking forward'' to handling the negotiations, says a member of a US Senate delegation who met the Archbishop Saturday.
The 61-year-old prelate has considerable experience as a mediator in negotiations between the Sandinistas and their enemies. He first played that role in 1974 when a group of Sandinista guerrillas raided a Christmas party and held dozens of senior government officials hostage for two-and-a-half days. And four years later, a Sandinista commando squad that seized the National Palace chose Obando y Bravo as go-between in negotiations with dictator Anastasio Somoza for the release of guerrilla prisoners and the payment of a ransom.
But negotiating a cease-fire will be one of the cardinal's hardest assignments. The two sides in the conflict have very different views of what the talks are about.
The cease-fire negotiations, to which Managua has now agreed, ``must not be confused with a political dialogue'' about the revolution's goals and methods, Mr. Ortega insisted in his speech Thursday night. The peace treaty, he reminded his audience, calls for political discussions only with unarmed opposition groups, not with rebel leaders. ``Sandinista power is not negotiable,'' read a banner, summing up the government's bottom line.
Calero, however, appears hopeful the contras can stretch that point. ``It is absurd to think you can have negotiations for a cease-fire without negotiating political considerations,'' he said in response to Ortega's speech.
Managua's intention, on the other hand, ``is to negotiate the manner in which [the contras] lay down their arms,'' explained one Sandinista official here privately.
His other major announcements last Thursday, meanwhile, played to both his domestic supporters in the stalls and to the international gallery. Ortega is scheduled to address the Organization of American States in Washington on Wednesday.
The tens of thousands of Sandinista supporters in Revolution Square offered no response when the President announced steps to comply with the peace plan, such as talks with the contra leadership and immediate freedom for 981 political prisoners.
His plans for a wider amnesty and lifting the state of emergency met with a baffled silence. But when Ortega announced plans would not be put into effect ``until the aggression against the Nicaraguan people stops,'' and that members of Somoza's hated National Guard would never be amnestied, he got enthusiastic applause.
The loudest cheers greeted his announcement that the government was suspending its unilateral cease-fire in four small areas of the country. The Army started going after contras in those zones Saturday, pending a broader negotiated cease-fire.
Decrees lifting the state of emergency and offering amnesty to all imprisoned for ``counterrevolutionary activities'' are expected to pass the National Assembly this week. But Ortega warned they would not be carried out until Washington suspended aid to the contras and neighboring Honduras stopped letting the rebels to use its territory.
Honduras's President pledged to take that step when he signed the treaty, and the five leaders agreed to keep their promises simultaneously, Ortega said. But Honduras has argued it is not obliged to remove the contras until Nicaragua meets its obligations - such as offering an amnesty and negotiating a cease-fire. Those positions point to a stalemate between the two countries that foreign diplomats here say could prove awkward to break.