THE Pan-American summit meeting here was supposed to inaugurate a ``new era'' of cooperation in relations among the Americas, according to its host, President Oscar Arias S'anchez. But the largest gathering of American leaders in 22 years ended under the shadow of what is perhaps the quintessential example of the ``old era'' - the Nicaraguan contra war.
When Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra announced he would not renew a 19-month-old cease-fire with US-financed contra rebels, the focus of the meeting reverted from the theme of new relations and cooperation to the eight-year-old conflict. And the language of the meeting changed from one of multilateralism and equality to the cold war rhetoric of insults and accusations.
``There is a difference between a lessening of tensions and a new era,'' says a Western diplomat here. ``What we have still is the former ... and while Arias is trying to launch a new era, the reality of the former keeps intruding.''
Inside the meeting itself the presidents dicussed planned agenda items such as drugs, democracy, and debt. No declaration was issued. A few smaller multi-lateral and bilateral meetings were held on various topics, such as discussion on a unified policy for coffee.
And when the summit ended Saturday, the major story was the hard words Bush had for Ortega.
In a press conference, Bush harshly attacked Ortega, accusing him of ending the cease-fire as a plot to postpone or cancel elections next February. He also repeatedly referred to Ortega as ``that little man,'' and described the Nicaraguan as an ``unwanted animal at a garden party.'' (He was referring to a skunk, a term used for Ortega in an earlier White House press pool report.)
It was highly reminiscent of former President Ronald Reagan's repeated references to the ``dictator in designer glasses.''
Referring to Ortega's announcement, a source in the Sandinista delegation said he had hoped to deliver the ``maximum shock'' by announcing the cease-fire lapse at this high profile parley.
As with most such forums, notes a Western ambassador contacted by phone in Managua, the Sandinistas chose to push their own agenda at the meeting.
``The question was, `Was anything going to be done at all about the [contra] demobilization plan by Dec. 8 [when it is supposed to be completed]),''' the Sandinista source said. ``Things were going along far too complacently. [So Ortega] decided to take the risk'' in making the announcement ``and see if something would get done,'' he added.
The five Central American presidents signed an agreement to demobilize and repatriate the rebels at a meeting last August in Honduras. Although the demobiliztion was not to be on the agenda for the summit, the Sandinista source added, the Nicaraguans' strategy was ``to take the focus [of interntional attention] on the conference and put it on demobilizing the contras.''
Also, ``it seemed Bush was coming down here just to promote [Nicaraguan opposition leader] Violeta [Barrios de Chamorro],'' he added, referring to Bush's breakfast meeting with her Saturday.
Mrs. Chamorro also had a high profile at the opening session of the meeting and the luncheon that followed. ``Well, the Violeta thing now seems to have been lost in the dust,'' following the news of the lapsed cease-fire, the Sandinista source said with satisfaction.
The Sandinista gamble, like other risky moves in the game of regional diplomacy, may pay off with little damage to them for having usurped the limelight from Arias and the generally ``feel-good'' atmosphere of the summit, experts here say.
Although the Sandinistas know the move will not play well in Washington, immediate reaction to the announcement from several members of Latin delegations was not as cutting as the US response.
Ortega ``has good reasons for suspending the cease-fire, but he did it in the wrong way,'' says one South American, an opinion shared by many of the Latins present at the meeting.
Indeed, even President Arias was said by two aides not to be terribly upset by the Sandinista move. Nor, they said, did he see it as a serious threat to the peace plan he authored.
The fault lies, however, several sources agreed, in the way the Nicaraguans publicized their plans. Their officials had briefed some reporters on the impending announcement Friday, but had not mentioned it to Arias or the other presidents, who heard the news from shouting reporters at the meeting.
So long as Ortega does not postpone or cancel the elections, several observers say, he should suffer little long-term damage. Although Bush hinted darkly that a renewal of military aid to the contras could be considered if the Sandinistas launch an offensive against the contras, this is considered highly unlikely under almost any but the most extreme circumstances, according to sources interviewed recently in Washington.
It seems Washington must accept the possibility of a Sandinista offensive which could drive the contras inside Nicaragua back into Honduras as has been done before, say diplomats and observers here and in Managua.
At his press conference Saturday morning, Ortega said an increase in contra attacks recently was aimed at obstructing the electoral process leading up to February's national elections. The Sandinista Army will now move to ``protect'' Nicaraguan citizens and the electoral process, he said.
``It really wasn't such a bad move,'' said the Western ambassador in Managua. ``If they had announced it, or launched an offensive during the [voter] registration period [that ended last Sunday], that would have been worse,'' he said. ``But now, what is there if they spend two weeks cleaning [the contras] out of the mountains. Nothing really is going on'' until the campaign officially begins Dec. 4, he said.
What remains to be seen is whether the ``risk'' taken by Ortega Saturday pays off with renewed emphasis on the contra demobilization.
The next summit of the regional presidents is scheduled for early December in Managua.
Of particular concern to the Sandinistas in making their decision, say diplomats and observers here, is an apparent weakening of the contra command structure, causing rebel leaders in the field to act on their own, outside the orders of their commanders in Honduras.
``We have been getting reports to that effect, and if it is true,then to whom will the UN talk'' in carrying out its role in demobilizing the contras under the presidents' plan, asks a Western diplomat here.
If that is so, he added, great pressure must be exerted to make the contras inside the country comply with what their leaders in Honduras agree to.
Ortega said he decided to let the cease-fire lapse after a bloody contra ambush Oct. 21 in which 17 soldiers were killed, raising the total for the month to 48.
It remains to be seen whether Arias' vision of a new era will yet come to pass. A top aide to Arias said earlier that the summit was meant to determine if ``the last theater of the cold war [Central America] can be brought to a close.
``This will also mean that Ortega will have to present himself as the leader of Latin perestroika [restructuring].''
Neither of those goals were achieved over the weekend, and they both seem to be held hostage to the outcome of Nicaragua's elections Feb. 25.
And the results of the Americas summit demonstrated that the lingering ghosts of the past continue to haunt the future.