As a peace bid, the Nicaraguan government's new cease-fire plan is addressed to the contra rebels. As a weapon, it is aimed at the heart of the Reagan administration. And after a flurry of diplomatic activity in Washington last week, Sandinista officials say they believe they have begun to turn the tables on United States policy.
``The Reagan administration's opinion does not seem to be central to decisions'' regarding Nicaragua, Vice-President Sergio Ram'irez Mercado said in an interview last week. ``The picture has been changing little by little'' as the US Congress and Latin American nations have carved out more independent roles for themselves.
That is cause for celebration in Managua, as the Sandinistas review the results so far of their tactical handling of the Aug. 7 Central American peace pact.
``Time has played in our favor,'' one Sandinista official says. ``Reagan's plan was to give the contras another $270 million by last week. They didn't get it. That's not bad.''
US Secretary of State George Shultz has announced the administration will not ask a skeptical Congress for that aid until January at the earliest.
Managua's decision to open indirect cease-fire talks with contra leaders, using the Roman Catholic cardinal, Miguel Obando y Bravo, as intermediary, ``has certainly won the Sandinistas another two months,'' a Western diplomat here says. ``They are very good at spinning things out.''
Accepting cease-fire negotiations, and thus reversing a traditional policy, was difficult for Managua. Onlythree weeks ago, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann argued that such talks were ``a trap.''
``If the dialogue failed, Reagan could say it was because Nicaragua is intransigent,'' Mr. d'Escoto warned.
Sandinista strategists, however, appear to have concluded that risk is outweighed by the need to keep their friends in Europe and Latin America, who have urged Managua to make concessions.
At the same time, a Sandinista official says, ``the biggest risk is of continued political support for the contras in the United States.''
Undermining that support, already on the wane in the Democratic-controlled Congress, is a key goal for Managua. Pursuing it, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra worked closely last week with House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas to draw up a cease-fire proposal.
``We want the US Congress to be fully aware of this arrangement of a cease-fire,'' said Vice-President Ram'irez, to convince legislators of Managua's good faith.
The Sandinistas approached Mr. Wright ``as a prestigious person who could somehow act as a witness ... because of the role the US Congress has in a Central American peace process,'' Mr. Ram'irez explained.
At the same time, officials hope that Wright may be able to act as a channel for Managua's hopes of direct talks with Washington. ``Wright could be an Obando for Sandinista-US talks,'' one official here suggested privately.
While President Ortega's immediate aim is to end the contra war, his broader hope is to strike a direct deal with the US, allowing Managua to breathe more easily.
``We are ready to discuss any issues the United States wants to put on the table regarding its security interests in Central America,'' Ram'irez said.
``Direct dialogue would open the possibility of an understanding to stabilize relations between Nicaragua and the United States,'' he added. ``We believe that stabilizing these relations is still an important part of consolidating the outlook for peace in Central America.''
Officials here see a security deal with Washington, pledging never to allow Soviet military bases in Nicaragua, for example, as in the Democrats' interests as the US presidential campaign heats up.
Should President Reagan sign such an agreement, one official here contends, the Democrats would not be open to charges that they had ``lost Nicaragua to the Communists.''
But for that very reason, Managua is doubtful that President Reagan would strike a security deal and deny his party a stick with which to beat opponents in 1988.
So far, Mr. Reagan has refused to talk directly with Managua, offering only general talks between Mr. Shultz and five Central American foreign ministers.
The Sandinistas are skeptical of this proposal. ``We would have to first ask the United States what its pretensions are in opening a regional discussion,'' Ram'irez cautioned. ``Ours are clear when we talk of a bilateral discussion.''
Meanwhile, Cardinal Obando y Bravo has returned from the United States, after what he called ``an informal sounding out'' of the Sandinistas and the contras, suggesting that ``to start with, we Nicaraguans should dialogue among ourselves.''
The cardinal said he expected a response from the contras this week to the government's first cease-fire proposal, which Mr. Ortega unveiled in Washington last week.
Ortega proposed that all contra troops should make their way into three cease-fire zones by Dec. 5, where they would be supplied with food and medicine by a neutral body. Ram'irez suggested that the International Red Cross might undertake that task.
Sandinista troops would abide by a truce starting next Friday, Ortega announced, allowing rebel soldiers time to march from their present positions to the cease-fire areas.
Once the cease-fire was in effect, the contras would hand in their arms and then either rejoin their families or be given assistance to resettle in another country.
Contra leaders have condemned Managua's proposal as a demand for surrender, but they have not rejected it out of hand and are understood to be preparing their formal counteroffer.