THE first United Nations peacekeeping operation ever fielded in the Western Hemisphere is poised for launch into Nicaragua. And, before year's end, it should reach into the four neighboring Central American countries as well. The final stage of the regional plan was given the go-ahead Aug. 7 at Tela, Honduras, in an accord signed by the Presidents of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
The agreement represents a breakthrough in the deadlock that has kept the joint UN/Organization of American States (OAS) operation from getting off the ground for well over a year.
The main sticking points had been intra-regional hostilities, government and rebel intransigence, and Washington's coolness, if not outright opposition.
Offstage diplomacy dating back to the Reagan administration made it clear that, because of animosity toward the Sandinistas, the United States would veto any Security Council resolution aimed at setting up a UN peace operation in the region.
Domestic and international developments in recent weeks have cleared away most of the barriers.
Following the Tela agreement, the Bush administration was forced to concede that it was diplomatically outgunned by the region's Presidents. As one Latin American ambassador put it, ``they [the Presidents] had had enough'' of the US-supported contra rebels.
Concessions by Managua had earlier closed the gap between the Sandinistas and their internal opposition. And Nicaragua's willingness to accept UN monitoring of its Feb. 25 elections boosted the status of President Daniel Ortega's government among other governments.
At Tela, Nicaragua also agreed to shelve its World Court suit against Honduras, which charged collaboration with the US and the contras to oust the Sandinistas. Honduras had refused to be a party to the accord otherwise.
In Washington meanwhile, congressional rejection of more military aid for the contras put President Bush on notice that the majority of lawmakers were ready for a full-scale diplomatic approach to the proxy war against Nicaragua.
Buoyed by such developments, UN officials are convinced that the peace operation is finally on track. A senior aide to Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar said he had studied transcripts of post-Tela statements by deputy spokesman for the State Department Richard Boucher and other administration officials and was persuaded that the US would not veto the UN operation.
``There will be some posturing, some quibbling about the fine print,'' an official said. ``But we feel there now is virtually no prospect of an American veto.''
The initial phase of the three-part operation was triggered officially a month before the Tela accord by Nicaragua's agreement to accept UN personnel to monitor its election campaign and voting.
A military contingent - the International Commission of Support and Verification (CIAV) - will be deployed by Sept. 8. Its mandate is to oversee the demobilization, disarming, and repatriation or resettlement of the estimated 10,000 Nicaraguan contras in Honduras. The unit consisting of troops from Canada, Spain, and West Germany, with Latin American components, probably from Colombia and Venezuela, will demobilize the contras. The resettlement of contras and their families will be handled largely by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The most ambitious component of the regional peace plan is the UN Observer Group in Central America (ONUCA). Starting in late September, it will be deployed throughout the five Central American countries to verify compliance with two provisions of the peace agreement:
The cessation of military assistance to guerrilla groups, notably the contras and the Salvadoran rebels of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN). ONUCA will be an unarmed, multinational force of several hundred military personnel of officer rank.
The non-use of national territory to stage attacks against other countries.
A UN reconnaissance mission will go to the region next month to assess logistic and transport requirements for ONUCA, which will comprise land, sea, and air units.