Nicaraguan peace talks may get new life. Arias awaits Sandinista reply to proposals

The Nicaraguan peace process appears to be nearing resurrection. For the past few weeks, proponents of new talks have been setting up a chain reaction of leverage that would move the Reagan administration, the contras, and the Sandinistas all in the same direction - toward diplomacy, not more war. ``It's a nine-cushion billiard shot, and we're now at cushion four or five,'' says a well-placed Washington source.

Other informed sources are discussing new talks as if they will definitely take place. The thinking on timing is the first week of September - just before expected House-Senate conference committee negotiations on contra aid.

The ultimate question is whether both sides will genuinely work to reach a deal or if they will use more talks as a tactic. Some analysts fear the Sandinistas are trying to force the contras to crumble by dragging out the process until the Reagan administration leaves office. They are also concerned the contras will just go through the motions at the table as a prelude to another bid for US military aid.

But for now, signs point to a renewal of the talks, which collapsed June 9.

``It [the peace process] is losing its dynamism, but there's at least one more big push in it,'' the US ambassador to Costa Rica, Deane Hinton, told a Monitor reporter in Costa Rica. Ambassador Hinton has served as a liaison to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez for Secretary of State George Shultz in his new push for diplomacy in the region.

Secretary Shultz himself expressed hope for new talks after he met with President Arias Tuesday. At the time it was the clearest public indication yet that the US was prepared to make a serious push for negotiations - a crucial factor in getting the contras to the table.

At time of writing, Mr. Arias was planning a press conference yesterday at which it was thought he might announce promising developments. But another link in the chain had yet to be completed: The Sandinistas had still not publicly responded to an Aug. 6 letter by Arias to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra calling for concessions to save the Arias peace plan.

The letter asked for a reversal of the Sandinistas' July 10 crackdown - i.e., freeing those arrested at an opposition rally and reopening opposition media - as well as rescinding a strict media law and initiating reform of electoral laws. The fact that Arias publicized its contents is seen by some as a sign that he expects President Ortega to comply, or perhaps even has advance assurances from Mr. Ortega that he will.

A meeting between Arias and Ortega yesterday in Quito, Ecuador, was expected to produce some answers.

``We have to prove [to the Sandinistas] to what extent Shultz's statement reflects the true desires of the contras,'' said an Arias adviser contacted by phone before the meeting. ``Shultz didn't say that in private. We asked him to join us in trying to get the negotiations going again, but he didn't say yes or no. He is always very cryptic.''

The adviser said he felt Ortega would ultimately concede enough to get talks going again. And according to another informed Washington source, Shultz is indeed ``on board'' to make the necessary US push to deliver the contra directorate to new negotiations. ``The idea was to make the Sandinistas an offer they couldn't refuse,'' he said.

In recent days, Ortega has been pressured by a number of Latin American and European leaders to open up his political system and resume peace talks - part of the grand ``choreography'' of the strategy, says Costa Rican Ambassador to Washington Danilo Jim'enez.

Exactly where the contra directorate stands on matters is unclear. Alfredo C'esar, the most moderate director and the only one who favors diplomacy over military pressure at this point, met with Arias in Costa Rica over the weekend to consult on the contra position. The internal division in the directorate and a lack of vision for the future among the hard-liners remain, says a source close to the contras.

But the contras face a stark reality: a deficit of votes in the House for renewed military aid. Swing Democrats have made clear they will not vote for more arms until they feel the negotiations option has been exhausted. Hard-line contras, like Col. Enrique Berm'udez, feel that negotiating without the leverage of having US military aid is tantamount to surrender. But more moderate contras, who admit that their forces will never overthrow the Sandinistas, feel that talks offer the only glimmer of hope for democratic reforms.

One contra official says talks in early September seem possible, ``as long as things are proceeding smoothly in Congress'' over contra aid.

The final players in this elaborate confluence of forces are Cuba and the Soviet Union. A few months ago Arias wrote to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, stating that if he wants to support peace, he should stop arming the Sandinistas. Arias got the standard foreign ministry reply: Fine, as along as the US stops sending arms to El Salvador and Honduras.

This exchange notwithstanding, Ambassador Jim'enez sees potential for a constructive Soviet role as part of the new atmosphere brought about by progress toward peace in several trouble spots.

``The Soviets can disentangle themselves from Nicaragua more easily than they can from Cuba,'' he says. ``Ortega is feeling that.''

Staff writer Brook Larmer contributed to this report from Costa Rica.

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