On the eve of Secretary of State George Shultz's trip to Central America, Washington moderates are warning that the trip could be a failure. By several accounts, the governments of Guatemala and Costa Rica are upset with the Reagan administration. They say it is trying to get them to sign on to a statement that harshly denounces Nicaragua's Sandinista government and has done little to revive the region's moribund peace process. And, says a Washington source close to the situation, even Honduras and El Salvador, which receive massive US aid, are ``nervous'' about what Secretary Shultz will say on his trip.
The purpose of the trip, which begins today in Guatemala with Shultz attending a meeting of the foreign ministers of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, was to ``establish some kind of consultative process'' on regional matters, a State Department official says. But the Central Americans have been concerned for several weeks that the US will dominate the meeting, says a diplomat from a Central American state that is friendly to the US. ``All four of us don't equal one of him,'' he says.
The situation reflects a polarization of views within the Reagan administration over what to do about Central America, says a moderate House aide. The Sandinistas' recent crackdown on opposition leaders and the media bolstered hard-liners in the administration, just as it was reviving highest-level US diplomatic involvement in the region. In June, Shultz toured the region for the first time in two years.
Now that effort at consensus-building appears to be in danger. ``The question is, where is George?'' says the source close to the situation. ``And I don't mean George Bush.''
In the end, only George Shultz knows what George Shultz is going to say at today's meeting and in subsequent encounters with Central and South American leaders over the next 10 days. It is possible that Shultz, by allowing hard-line forces to have their say on the situation in advance, is protecting his conservative flank and may himself forge a last-minute consensus with the Central Americans, the House aide says.
But over the weekend, prospects looked bleak. Said one administration official, ``The question is not what the communiqu'e will say, but whether there will be a communiqu'e at all'' out of today's meeting.
A front-page article in Sunday's New York Times detailing Costa Rican and Guatemalan anger with the US may have the effect of embarrassing the US administration into moderating its stance. The fact that officials from those countries were willing to have their dissenting views publicized is seen as an indication of how strongly they feel. The article also quoted a senior American official calling a US-drafted communiqu'e a virtual declaration of war against Nicaragua. There is speculation that the official intended his comment to squelch that draft, reflecting the split in the administration.
The war in Nicaragua remains in a tenuous cease-fire, with occasional flare-ups. Since contra-Sandinista peace talks broke down June 9, developments on both sides have made prospects for a final accord less likely. The Sandinistas have backed away from moves to open up their system. And the contras have elected a new, harder-line directorate which, in its debut visit to Washington late last week, seemed eager only to lobby for military aid.
According to aides who participated in meetings between House Democrats and the contra directorate, the more the contras talked, the less likely they were to persuade members to vote for military aid. The contras failed to project a clear strategy for the future, aides say.
Even a State Department supporter of the contras conceded that the directorate's visit was ill-conceived. He explains: ``They should have ironed out their internal differences and gotten their act together on what they wanted first.''
The absence of contra director Alfredo Cesar, the most moderate contra director and the leading contra advocate for continued negotiations with the Sandinistas, was conspicuous. According to sources close to Mr. Cesar, his absense reflected divisions within the new directorate over strategy. But one source does not think Cesar will quit the directorate altogether at this point.