ALL sides in Nicaragua's lengthy war now face a fresh opportunity to reach a viable peace: Congress's turndown of the Reagan administration's contra aid package cancels the Sandinistas' perennial excuse for making only limited democratic concessions.
The contras have every reason to take full advantage of the leverage they still have; they know the United States is not going to put them in a position of power. It could also help if the Sandinistas' other political opponents would agree on priorities and leadership they could support.
The US could bolster the contra position and resolve its own primary concerns by negotiating directly with the Sandinistas over security issues such as Managua's plans for a larger Army and continued Soviet aid.
All sides must make concessions.
Cease-fire talks should be resumed as soon as each side resolves the worst of its internal differences. Civilian leaders among the contras, who may have been viewed by their military colleagues as useful chiefly in getting money out of Washington, may find it hard to reassert their authority after the Capitol Hill vote. Reports persist of internal divisions among the Sandinistas.
The contras postponed the last round of cease-fire talks, saying they needed to reassess the fallout from the aid vote. Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo returns to Central America as mediator later this week; if the contras see fit to delay the talks long past his return, the Reagan administration should insist on a more cooperative stance.
The Sandinistas no longer confront the immediate threat of renewed fighting; US supply deliveries to the contras are to end this month. But Mr. Ortega faces considerable pressure to find a peaceful way out of Nicaragua's current morass just the same. Soviet leaders have made no all-out effort to help him. Nicaragua's economy is in shambles. Basic goods from food to gasoline are scarce and costly. Power outages are common. Citizen protests against government economic policies and a compulsory military draft are increasing. The contras are not yet a defeated force and could be remobilized. They have set up two funds to receive private contributions for nonlethal aid; Sen. Robert Dole promptly gave $500.
House Speaker Jim Wright and the Democratic leadership on the Hill are also preparing a humanitarian aid package of $3 million to $4 million a month for the contras. To its credit, the White House says administration officials will avoid giving any help or encouragement to private fund-raising efforts; the lessons of the Iran-contra affair have clearly had some effect. But it is sad that the White House, burned by its aid defeat, has chosen not to work with the House leadership in crafting a broadly acceptable humanitarian aid package. The administration wants the public to see what the Democrats have to offer and add to the Senate bill some items such as helicopters and communications equipment which have military as well as civilian uses.
What the contras most need now is economic help to relocate and reintegrate into normal life. What the US most needs with respect to Central America is a truly bipartisan foreign policy. Less polarization in Washington, just as in Central America, could help considerably.
If negotiations between the Sandinistas and the contras, and the Sandinistas and the US, can be nudged forward, this could have a positive effect on the other civil wars in the region, enhancing the credibility of the whole peace process. The goal is one well worth shooting for.