Central Americans Take the Reins. SALVAGING REGIONAL HOPES FOR PEACE

THE five Central American Presidents who met in El Salvador this week have scored something of a diplomatic, political, and public relations triumph. Their agreement Tuesday to end Nicaragua's eight-year contra war is seen by analysts and government officials as breathing new life into their faltering regional peace plan.

The concerted decision reflects an effort to pursue homegrown solutions at a time when US regional policy is seen as lacking in direction and initiative.

In recent interviews in Honduras, Cost Rica, and El Salvador, local officials and analysts expressed concern over the ``rudderless'' nature of US policy. Efforts to get clear signals about new US policy directions have not been particularly successful.

Late last year, in a remark typifying much civilian sentiment in the region, a Guatemalan Foreign Ministry official said: ``The pressure applied by the US for all the countries here to cooperate with its war against Nicaragua has caused tensions in all of these countries, especially between civilian officials and our military.

``And most of us have enough [tensions] as it is,'' he added.

Honduras - the US's main regional ally and uneasy host to some 12,000 contra troops - has made it increasingly clear in recent months that it wants the contras out. Some observers point to Honduras's vocal concerns as another sign of the decline of US influence and diplomacy.

Central American officials appeared to agree that this summit was the last chance to keep the August 1987 peace treaty from sinking completely. For all its defects, the pact is still viewed as a useful multilateral instrument for launching delicate national initiatives in the future.

The five Presidents - of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua - called Tuesday for a detailed plan to be drawn up within 90 days to disarm the contras and move them out of Honduras. In turn, Nicaragua promised significant political reforms, release of political prisoners, and a speedup of its national elections.

The final agreement, however, made no mention of seriously verifying the compliance of other countries with the peace plan. No real pressure was put on either El Salvador or Guatemala to resolve their long-festering civil wars.

The contras - who were denied any further military aid by the US Congress last March - appear to have little choice but to comply with the agreement. The accord affords them no formal role in deciding their future or that of Nicaragua, except as private citizens. If they resist the Presidents' plan for ``demobilization, repatriation, or relocation,'' they could face a dark future.

Still, the accord faces obstacles. It is vague enough that, without decisive steps by Nicaragua to uphold its end of the bargain, the accord may lose momentum.

The Sandinistas are called upon to make changes over the next four months that will expand pluralism, guarantee civil liberties, and ensure full participation of the opposition in the political process. This is to culminate in early elections by Feb. 25, 1990 - nine months ahead of schedule. International observers will oversee the elections.

But ultimately it will be a matter of interpretation on how far the Sandinistas go in allowing the opposition to freely organize, in removing restrictions on the opposition media, and in reforming electoral laws.

Any attempt to skirt these issues will certainly infuriate Nicaragua's opposition, as well as its neighbors. It could also alienate foreign support for the Sandinistas. Indeed, Central American observers say, anything less than magnanimous compliance could derail the plan.

``They've been saying they only wanted a chance to democratize in exchange for peace,'' a delegate at the meeting said. ``Well now they've got the chance, and God help them if they fail.''

Good faith will also be required on the part of Nicaragua's varied opposition. One observer here suggested that the contras' last play might be to join with rightist sectors of the internal opposition to stall or obstruct changes at home, miring the process in deadlock. Several observers at the summit said this scenario is a distinct possibility.

But if both sides proceed honestly, Nicaragua's political landscape would change significantly.

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