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Contadora is `emperor without clothes,' Europeans worry. EC-Latin meeting on Central America peace process bears no fruit

The four-year-old Contadora peace process may have run its course. That appears to be the assessment - and worry - of the Central American and European foreign ministers who ended a two-day summit here Tuesday.

No new initiatives to pacify Central America emerged from the talks. Diplomats took the fact that all five regional neighbors sat at the same table as one of the meeting's major successes. ``I don't think any steps forward to peace in Central America were taken,'' said Spain's foreign minister. ``But the meeting did not fail. The channels of dialogue are still open.''

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Participants from Europe and the Latin American countries sponsoring the Contadora Treaty - Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, and Colombia - appeared frustrated by the divisions that continue to deadlock the peace pact. Contadora is aimed at negotiating a peaceful settlement in Central America.

In practical terms, this third Central American-EC meeting yielded no increase in European aid to Central America. (Aid is expected to remain at around $80 million this year.) Almost all of it will be directed at regional development, not individual nations, diplomats said.

Europe's new insistence on regional aid programs is due ``not just to economic but also to political reasons,'' explained the EC commissioner for Latin America as he urged greater Central American unity.

It is also a way of dealing with Europe's own divisions over aid to Nicaragua's Sandinista government, EC diplomats explained privately. Managua has received nearly 40 percent of EC multilateral aid to Central America in recent years, while major EC members, such as England, France, and West Germany, have either reduced or halted their bilateral aid to the Sandinistas for political reasons.

Europe's growing doubts about Nicaragua's political direction - alongside Central America's own worries - were reflected in the meeting's final political document, which made repeated reference to the need for democracy in the region as essential for peace. Of the two key themes in the Contadora process, democratization and security, the document leaned toward the former, which is the major US preoccupation, rather than toward Nicaragua's fears for its safety from attack by the US-backed contras.

But the meeting's statement raised new doubts about Contadora's future. It referred to the process as ``currently, the only viable forum for reaching a peaceful and negotiated solution.'' While Contadora diplomats stressed the word ``only,'' Costa Rica's foreign minister, Rodrigo Madrigal Nieto, stressed ``currently.''

Mr. Madrigal Nieto said he saw Contadora as ``a corpse that nobody dares to bury.'' Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez has asked his Central American counterparts, except Nicaragua, to a Feb. 15 meeting to discuss a new peace plan focusing on Nicaragua's political system.

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Though yet to be unveiled, the plan is said to propose a cease-fire in the contra war, an end to US funding for the contras in return for negotiations between the Sandinistas and their internal opposition, and new Nicaraguan elections. Though Madrigal Nieto insisted this approach was an attempt ``to strengthen Contadora, to convert part of it into reality,'' his view was not shared by Nicaragua, or by European and Contadora diplomats.

Though the EC remains committed to Contadora, its support may not mean much against US misgivings, a European diplomat said. ``This conference could turn out to be the end of one era, and San Jos'e could be the beginning of another.''

Should Guatemala's President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo line up with the US allies in the region - Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador - the diplomat warned, an anti-Sandinista alliance will be in place, and this week's meeting will have been ``the last roadshow before the split.

``No one will want to admit that Contadora is dead, that the emperor has no clothes,'' the diplomat added, ``but they will all behave as if he hasn't.''

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