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Central American peace efforts making headway - despite US

Important movement is taking place on the political and diplomatic fronts with respect to each of Central America's three main conflicts. On the regional level, the Contadora Group, after months of drafting and extensive consultations with all five Central American countries, has succeeded, against all odds, in elaborating a broadly acceptable draft treaty, which Nicaragua has announced it intends to sign. In El Salvador, President Jose Napoleon Duarte and opposition leaders recently held the first face-to-face meeting at that level that we know about in the five-year history of the civil war. They agreed to form a joint government-rebel commission to discuss ways to bring peace to the country. And in Nicaragua, the Sandinista government almost agreed earlier this month to permit the main potential opposition candidate, Arturo Cruz, to participate in Nicaragua's coming elections in exchange for a cease-fire in the contra war against that country.

If they could be consummated, all three separate but related peace processes would serve important United States interests. They would ease tensions among the countries, help stop bloodshed, permit a halt to the arms race, allow people to live in peace, and make it possible for democracy to be institutionalized and economic development to occur in the region. They would lessen the possibility of increased and more direct US military involvement, decrease the opportunities for Cuban-Soviet gains, and defuse a divisive political issue at home.

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All that being the case, one would think that the administration would be supportive of these peace efforts. But the record suggests that the administration has been unhelpful to - if not actively opposing - all three.

Despite the administration's professions of support for the Contadora peace process, Latin Americans close to the process have consistently indicated in private that the US was seeking to undermine it. President Miguel de la Madrid of Mexico flatly told several members of Congress when he visited this country in May that the US was part of the problem, not part of the solution. The Contadora countries publicly criticized our mining of Nicaragua's harbors, and our massive military exercises and naval maneuvers in the region, as being unhelpful to the peace process. Recently they were dismayed again when the administration reacted in virtual panic to Nicaragua's announcement that it would sign the latest draft Contadora treaty and sought publicly to pressure the other Central American countries not to accept the draft. The administration's real policy appears to be as reported by the New York Times Oct. 8:

''Officials of the administration said there was no way it would accept an agreement with the Sandinista government as it is currently made up.''

News reports have repeatedly suggested that the US Embassy in San Salvador was unenthusiastic about President Duarte's peace initiative. That is not surprising. The US has consistently opposed peace talks in El Salvador, insisting that the only thing to talk about was the terms of the left's surrender. Duarte announced the talks without consultation with the embassy - the first time, so far as is publicly known, that any Salvadorean official has dared to make a move of that magnitude without US direction or approval. Like the signing of a Contadora agreement, peace talks in El Salvador would be a defeat for US policy.

The New York Times reported Oct. 21 that, despite the administration's public support for free elections in Nicaragua, the CIA was working against Mr. Cruz in his attempt to reach an agreement with the Sandinistas on the terms of his participation in the election. It did so by encouraging the right-wing business leaders in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), who are part of Cruz's coalition, not to agree to any proposal.

Those in Congress who were working hard to support Cruz in his negotiations with the Sandinistas know that the administration was not giving any help, but did not know that it was working actively against us.

That the administration works against these agreements brings into stark relief the differences between US goals and those of the countries of the region. The administration seeks to get rid of the Sandinista regime, but the Contadora process assumes the regime's continued existence. The administration seeks to deny the left a political role in El Salvador, but the idea of a political settlement assumes a role of the left. The administration seeks to increase the pressure on the Sandinistas until they cry uncle, but fair elections would ease that pressure. The inappropriateness of the administration's objectives drives it to work against the interests of our Latin neighbors and to oppose agreements that would, on their face, further the interests of the US. The Central American countries and the Contadora group are making heroic efforts to take control of their destinies and avert disaster. They deserve better from the US than they are getting.

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