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Central America-- US gaining initiative? Reagan approach appears to make more progress than Contadora talks

The Contadora peace process appears to have made some modest technical advances. But whether these advances represent a serious step forward in bringing peace to Central America is being questioned by many academic and diplomatic analysts here.

At the same time, the Reagan administration has continued to gain support in the region for its approach. Most important, according to one analyst close to Mexico's foreign policy establishment, Mexican leaders privately are beginning to accept the idea of eventual talks between the Sandinistas and the contra guerrillas.

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They continue, however, to emphatically reject the idea of new elections in Nicaragua and any renewed US aid to the contras.

In terms of the Contadora talks, held last week, analysts say the progress was largely technical. Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, widely considered Mexico's leading academic specialist on Central American affairs, said: ``Contadora has made some juridical progress, but peace is not a juridical problem, it is a political one.''

Mr. Aguilar and others say the Reagan administration has scored significant political gains because of a combination of US political and economic pressure on the one hand, and the growing disenchantment of some Latin American leaders (especially the Venezuelans) with the Sandinistas on the other. In general the US through its three Central American allies has taken the initiative in the Contadora process.

Although the US administration has neither gotten its peace proposal on the Contadora agenda nor achieved unequivocal support for its plan, it has sold most countries in the region on the idea of eventual talks between the Sandinistas and the contras. However, most of these countries share the Mexican viewpoint: They favor eventual talks between the two sides, but they have serious reservations about any linkage to either new elections in Nicaragua or renewed US aid.

This somewhat ambivalent support for the US approachhas been typified by the stance taken by Colombian President Belisario Betancur. Betancur publicly supported the Reagan plan while he was in Washington (although he never clarified whether he supported new elections) but, since his return to Bogot'a, has backed off from that support, saying he did not understand that the plan involved continued aid for the contras.

Latin American leaders have two strong objections to new Nicaraguan elections: The proposal is totally unaccept-able to the Sandinistas, and it establishes the dangerous precedent that the legitimacy of Latin American elections can be subject to US veto.

Meanwhile, what the Contadora group (made up of Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, and Panama plus the five Central American countries) did agree on was the setting up of three commissions that would establish the technical terms of and then verify any potential Contadora agreement.

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At last week's Contadora meeting, the treaty itself was not discussed. Rather, the Contadora countries decided that the treaty, which had in principle been agreed upon by Nicaragua and the other Central American countries last September, would be set aside until verification measures could be worked out in greater detail.

The topic of verification was originally brought up by the US's three Central American allies -- Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras -- after they had accepted a draft Contadora treaty, mistakenly believing Nicaragua would not do so.

To everyone's surprise, Nicaragua did accept the treaty. At that point, the US and its Central American allies faced a treaty they did not want. The Central Americans, prodded by the US, quickly raised the issue of verification.

Since last fall, Aguilar and other Western diplomatic and academic analysts say, the initiative in Contadora has, to a great degree, passed out of the hands of the four Conta-dora countries and into those of the US's three Central American allies. It is the Central Americans, not the Contadora four, who are now really setting the agenda for the talks.

These analysts see this as particularly significant, since the initial intention of the Contador four countries was to have a Latin American solution to the region's problems that would correspond to neither the US nor the Soviet point of view.

Aguilar and these other analysts believe that the current US strategy on Contadora is to turn the situation of last fall around. According to Aguilar, ``Reagan wants Nicaragua to be confronted with very specific conditions to make it seem as if Nicaragua is the party refusing peace. This will be an endless and painful process, and the four Contadora countries will be the increasingly weakened referees.''

An indication of US success in pushing its point of view is Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge's visit to Washington Sunday and Monday. Mr. Monge, who according to press reports was flown to Washington from Miami on board a US Air Force plane, told congressional leaders he favored both the $14 million assistance to the contras and the Reagan peace proposal in general.

This position of outright support for Reagan policy represents a dramatic shift for both Monge personally and Costa Rica. At the beginning of last year, Monge was still energetically seeking international and domestic political support for Costa Rica's neutrality in the conflict.

Politically moderate analysts here and in Costa Rica suggest it was a combination of Costa Rica's financial dependence on the US and opposition from Costa Rica's conservative private sector at the time of presidential primaries that defeated Monge's intentions.

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