Central American peace summit: recriminations or renewed resolve?

As they open a two-day summit here today, Central America's five Presidents face perhaps their hardest task since they signed a peace accord last August: to convince each other and the world they are serious about bringing the region's conflicts to an end. When they signed the peace pact five months ago, the leaders signaled a new political will. Today, that conviction seems to have largely evaporated in the heat of mutual mistrust.

The fact that the peace plan's goals ``have not been achieved so far does not diminish the validity'' of the process itself, says the international diplomatic team monitoring the five governments' performance.

``But permanent political will in the search for formulas to overcome the obstacles is imperative,'' states the International Verification and Follow-up Commission (CIVS) in its report to the presidential summit today. The Monitor obtained an advance copy of the report, drawn up by senior officials from eight Latin American nations, five Central American countries, the UN, and the Organization of American States.

The CIVS also urges the United States to abide by the peace plan's provisions. ``The definitive end'' of US aid to Nicaraguan contra rebels ``continues to be an indispensable requirement for the success of peace efforts,'' the report says.

On other issues, the commission makes only general recommendations for action. While regretting that countries have failed to comply with various provisions in the plan, it cast no clear blame on particular governments. ``Our conclusions are vague because the Central Americans were involved in drawing them up, and Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala were watering them down all the way,'' a non-Central American CIVS official complained.

That difficulty prompted the commission's recommendation that in future, the Central Americans should, at most, play a subordinate role in verifying their own compliance. The CIVS also recommended the Presidents set specific dates by which they must keep each promise they have so far failed to honor. That proposal matches the widespread expectations among diplomats and politicians in the region that the summit will extend the peace plan calendar beyond its Jan. 15 deadline.

Ironically, however, for a pact designed as a Central American effort to solve Central American problems, one critical potential deadline has already been set by outsiders - the US Congress. Congress is due to vote in the first week of February on President Reagan's forthcoming request for more contra military aid. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra warned Wednesday that, should the request win approval, ``it will be the US Congress that will be killing the peace plan.''

Ending aid to rebel forces is not the only unachieved goal. Cease-fires between governments and guerrillas in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala remain a distant prospect. A top Nicaraguan foreign ministry official says a halt to fighting would reduce chances for congressional approval of military aid to the contras, ``so they have a built-in incentive not to have a cease-fire, because it threatens their lifeline.''

In El Salvador, meanwhile, leftist guerrillas regard a cease-fire as little more than surrender. Guatemala's President broke off cease-fire talks with guerrilla enemies after only one session, dismissing them as bandits.

The peace plan's call for greater democracy has similarly fallen short of initial hopes. Although the CIVS report finds Nicaragua ``has taken concrete steps for getting a democratic process under way,'' it also notes opposition arguments that ``clearer differentiations between [the ruling Sandinista] party and state institutions'' are essential in a real democracy.

In El Salvador, the return of left-wing opposition leaders from a seven-year exile broadened the political spectrum but sparked concern for their physical safety. Latin American CIVS members ``were shocked by the attitudes of patent fear'' expressed by trade unionists and other opposition members in both El Salvador and Guatemala, a CIVS official said.

Although amnesty decrees - another key element in the plan - have freed political prisoners in El Salvador and Nicaragua, neither lives up to original intentions.

Today's summit atmosphere is expected to be soured with mutual recriminations, but diplomats say it is unlikely any leader will kill what is widely seen as the region's last chance for peace. Instead, they will likely follow the approach suggested by the CIVS - ``not to declare the success or collapse of a process that is under way, but to evaluate the progress achieved, identify the work yet to be done, and to suggest ways to continue it.''

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