Even as the United States aircraft carrier Ranger cruises off the Pacific coasts of Nicaragua and El Salvador, there is more talk of peace. No one expects peace in Central America to break out overnight. But Richard Stone, President Reagan's special envoy to the region, has already gone further in making contacts with leftist representatives in the region than some observers thought was likely.
When Mr. Stone first started shuttling to Central America and to nearby nations two months ago, his efforts were widely dismissed by any number of experts - some of them in the administration itself - as nothing more than an attempt to counter critics in the Congress. Sentiment was growing in the legislature in favor of a negotiated settlement of the Salvadorean conflict. Stone was chosen to facilitate a dialogue between the US-backed Salvadorean government and the leftist-led guerrillas.
Stone has now made what is described by the American side as a ''good preliminary contact'' with Ruben Zamora, a representative of the alliance of leftist-led forces in El Salvador known by its Spanish acronym FDR. The Stone-Zamora meeting, which took place Sunday in Bogota, Colombia, is to be followed by another meeting between the two that one US official said was expected to be ''more substantive'' than the first.
Alberto Arene, a spokesman for the political-diplomatic commission of the FDR in Washington, said it was also hoped that a meeting could be arranged between the guerrilla group and the three-member, government-appointed Salvadorean peace commission. The peace commission is reported to have responded positively to a FDR request for a meeting.
Thus within a matter of a few weeks, channels have been opened between the United States and the Salvadorean guerrillas, and between the guerrillas on one side and the Salvadorean government and peace commission on the other. The contacts have been the product of more than just the efforts of the Americans, represented by Stone, and the Salvadorean parties to the conflict. Also involved have been Costa Rica and members of the Contadora group of four Latin American nations. President Belisario Betancur of Colombia, whose nation is one of the Contadora group, helped to arrange the Stone-Zamora meeting.
The meeting was reported to be the highest-level contact of its kind to be made to date between the Reagan administration and the guerrillas. Two previous attempts to make the contact in Costa Rica had been canceled. A previous meeting had been held with Zamora in late 1981 by Everett E. Briggs, then deputy assistant secretary of state and now ambassador to Panama. American officials had considered that meeting an informal one, and were distressed when the FDR publicized it.
Some analysts are skeptical that the Stone-Zamora meeting means very much. They point out that each side has plenty of tactical reasons for holding a meeting, while conceding little to the other side. On the American and Salvadorean government side, there is a desire to show the US Congress that a good-faith effort is being made toward negotiation, thus ensuring a continuation of American military and economic aid to El Salvador. On the guerrilla side, there is a desire to ease American pressure and gain the recognition and legitimacy which negotiation can bring. When it comes to the tough issues, such as how to ensure the fairness of elections or how to deal with armed forces, the two sides find themselves far apart.
On the American and Salvadorean government side, there is concern that while Ruben Zamora comes across as a moderate, the men with the real power, the military leaders of the FDR, would be extremely difficult to deal with in any negotiation. Similarly, the guerrilla representatives, based on questions they have posed, seem to be uncertain as to how much authority the Salvadorean peace commission has to negotiate. Everyone recognizes that it is the officers of the Salvadorean military and security forces who hold the strongest hand in the Salvadorean government.
So the basic question is a simple one: In any negotiated compromise, would the negotiators on either side be able to ''deliver'' their military men?
The bearded, bespectacled Zamora himself, who many Salvadoreans say is not a Marxist, has reason for hostility toward some members of the current Salvadorean government. Zamora had served briefly as minister of the presidency in one Salvadorean government. Zamora's brother Mario, a Christian Democrat and at that time El Salvador's attorney general, was assassinated by one of El Salvador's infamous death squads in February 1980. The Christian Democrats claimed that retired National Guard Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, now president of the Salvadorean Constituent Assembly, was responsible.