The Central American peace process has suddenly leaped ahead - and for the moment, beyond the Reagan administration's grasp. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's proposal for halting his government's six-year-old war with the US-backed contras has already been rejected by the rebels themselves. Yet it marks the start of long-awaited, indirect negotiations between the two foes.
It also leaves the White House in a muddle. Administration officials promptly scorned Mr. Ortega's 11-point offer after it was unveiled here Friday. The plan would impose a Dec. 5 cease-fire and confine the contras to truce zones until they laid down their arms and were granted amnesty by Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas.
But the White House is unsure what to do next. Recent events seem to have knocked the administration's Central America policy out of kilter. Last week, Ortega crisscrossed the capital making the rounds in Congress, becoming a star news media attraction, and portraying himself as a man of peace and democracy.
Administration officials did not seem as irritated with Ortega, one of President Reagan's archest foes, as they were with the House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas. Representative Wright put himself at the center of last week's diplomatic flurry: He held talks with Ortega and contra leaders in his office and met with the designated mediator in the negotiations, Nicaragua's Roman Catholic cardinal, Miguel Obando y Bravo. Along with Ortega and Cardinal Obando y Bravo, Wright became one of the featured players in the Nicaraguan diplomatic drama.
Wright says he assumed a role only at the invitation of the Sandinistas and the cardinal and that he served only as a witness. ``I like to hope we're on the same team,'' Wright said Friday, referring to the White House. Still, he added, ``I'm not bound by the same restrictions the administration has put on itself.''
The restrictions to which Wright referred probably concern President Reagan's decision not to negotiate directly with the Sandinistas. Sandinista leaders have desperately wanted to resume bilateral talks abandoned by the US in Mexico City in 1984. But the Reagan administration has insisted that the Sandinistas negotiate first with the contras.
Consequently, the diplomatic solution seemed unreachable. Even after the five Central American presidents signed last month's accord initiating the peace process, the administration's policy was to wait for diplomatic efforts to collapse, then win Congress's assent for renewed military aid to the contras.
Two weeks ago, that calculus was skewed by Nicaragua's offer to negotiate indirectly through Obando y Bravo.
The administration countered with an offer to join regional talks including Nicaragua if the Sandinistas began to negotiate power-sharing with the contras. Although the Sandinistas have so far refused to formally discuss political matters, Ortega told lawmakers and reporters last week that the contras would be incorporated into a newly pluralistic political life.
Administration officials argue that Wright has been unwittingly co-opted by the Sandinistas, and that his involvement threatens to disrupt this delicate progression of events. They also charge that Wright's action dangerously undermines the principle that diplomacy is conducted by the White House, not by members of Congress.
Underlying the administration's agitation over Wright's actions is its concern about the future of the contras. Time is running out on the Reagan presidency, and administration officials realize they have little time left to defend the contras from the gradually swelling ranks of skeptics in Congress.
Sandinista officials say they believe that Wright holds the key to many of the House's ``swing votes'' on contra funding. In January, the administration is scheduled to ask for an additional $270 million in military aid.
They also say their contact with Wright represents their recognition of an even more certain political reality. ``We can stop worrying about Reagan next January,'' one Sandinista official says. ``We will have to deal with Wright for another decade.''