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Wrestling over peace plan. Region faces obstacles ranging from semantics to deep US-Nicaragua distrust

Hoping to pave the way for peace in Central America, five foreign ministers begin work today on nailing down the all-important details of a plan signed by five of the region's Presidents almost two weeks ago. The series of meetings - two days in El Salvador followed by two more in Venezuela - will be a crucial test for the treaty, several Central American diplomats and political experts say.

They will test the political resolve of five Central American countries - Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica - whose fragile alliance runs counter to established United States policy in many ways. And the results could indicate whether the peace plan will move toward its ultimate goal of a negotiated end to the region's guerrilla wars and political strife.

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Obstacles to the plan range from quibbling over semantics to the deep-seated distrust that exists between Managua and Washington. Some of the potentially explosive issues include:

Cease-fire. The accord is vague on the key question of how to stop the guerrilla wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Governments are asked only to ``make a vehement exhortation'' to armed groups and to take any ``necessary actions'' to reach a cease-fire agreement.

Political analysts predict that the foreign ministers will run into snags trying to define those phrases, since they seem open to almost any interpretation.

To the Nicaraguan government, for example, ``necessary actions'' mean direct talks with the US, not with the US-backed contra rebels.

If there remain no concrete procedures and no sanctions for noncompliance, analysts warn, it will be tough to reach a cease-fire in Nicaragua or El Salvador.

Armed rebels. It would be unrealistic, experts say, to expect an end to the region's bloodshed if armed opposition groups are excluded from negotiations. As the treaty stands now, the governments are obliged only to hold talks with unarmed opposition parties. There is no consensus on how guerrillas should participate.

Security concerns. The treaty does not specifically cover several security issues that trouble Washington, such as the withdrawal of Soviet military aid to Nicaragua, reducing the number of Soviet and Cuban advisers in Nicaragua, and cutting the size of the region's armed forces.

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The accord signed in Guatemala City on Aug. 7 shuffles responsibility for these security and verification measures to the Contadora group. (The Contadora nations - Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama - have been trying since 1983 to forge a peace accord that these five Central American countries could agree on.) This weekend, the Central American ministers will fly to Caracas to discuss these issues with Contadora officials.

Some political experts doubt the US will abide by Contadora's decisions. They feel that security issues must be negotiated directly between the US and Nicaragua.

Democratization. The accord calls for regular elections, press freedom, political pluralism, and civil rights guarantees - provisions seen as aimed at Nicaragua.

Confusing US signals. Regional diplomats say the plan's success depends on US acceptance. But they have been getting crossed signals from Washington.

Experts say the mixed messages reflect the fact that the Guatemala treaty poses a dilemma for US policy. The treaty calls for the cutoff of external aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, recognizes the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan government, and makes no real demands on reducing Soviet and Cuban presence in Nicaragua.

But the Reagan administration has been careful not to dismiss the initiative. Analysts say that it must embrace the negotiating track if it is to gain more contra aid from a reluctant Congress.

``For the US, a two-track policy is like riding two horses at the same time while they're going in opposite directions,'' one Western diplomat says. ``It's bound to be confusing.''

A bipartisan plan forwarded by President Reagan two weeks ago as a step toward negotiations dissolved into a nonnegotiable draw with Nicaragua. And the sudden resignation of Philip Habib, Reagan's special envoy to Central America, has only heightened sentiment here that the US President is not serious about negotiations.

``The US reaction will make or break this plan,'' a Western diplomat says. ``If the administration gets more money for the contras, then this peace plan is dead. But if they don't get more aid, then they will have to come to terms with the agreement.''

In the meantime, US diplomats returned to the region Tuesday to share the administration's concerns over the peace plan.

While nobody believes that an agreement is possible without some US involvement, several diplomats here have expressed the fear that Honduras or El Salvador - the region's strongest US allies - could start buckling under US pressure.

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