SAN JOS'E, COSTA RICA
AFTER a stormy marathon meeting, the five Central American presidents signed an agreement here yesterday giving new life to the regional peace process. The most significant element of the agreement signed at this sixth regional summit calls for all remaining aid from the United States to the Nicaraguan contra rebels to be used solely for their demobilization and relocation. Also of major significance was the accord's call for El Salvador's rebels to be demobilized in a similar manner.
In an apparent reference to the US, the accord calls on the secretary general of the United Nations to ``establish the necessary links to involve ... states with interests in the region'' in the peace process.
``This is an historic agreement,'' said US lawyer Paul Reichler, a member of the Sandinista delegation, shortly before the signing ceremony at 3:30 a.m.
``It is one of the most important agreements they've reached, and it gives great momentum to the peace process when it was in its worst hour of crisis,'' he added.
The meeting began under the cloud of the strongest rebel offensive ever in El Salvador. Also jeopardizing the peace plan was El Salvador's temporary suspension of relations with Nicaragua and the threat of renewed fighting in Nicaragua, where a government cease-fire was lifted six weeks ago.
The big winner in this meeting - other than the peace process itself - seemed to be Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani.
According to several observers at the signing, Mr. Cristiani won a major diplomatic victory when the Salvadoran rebels were linked with the contras in a call for the same international commission to oversee the demobilization of both groups. The commission is known as the International Support and Verification Commission (CIAV).
``This will definitely put the FMLN on the defensive as Cristiani can now say the other presidents favor their demobilization, just like the contras,'' said one analyst, referring to the rebels of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front. ``Linking the contras and the FMLN like that was his top priority and he got it.''
At a time when Cristiani is under pressure internationally in regard to investigation of the murder of six priests last month - widely believed to have been the work of the military - the accord notes the ``decided support'' of the other presidents for his government as the product of ``democratic, pluralist, and participatory processes.''
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavadra also got what he came for, according to official sources and observers. But unlike the last two summits in February and August, Mr. Ortega did not walk away the undisputed winner.
The accord states that ``funds approved'' for the contras will be ``delivered ... to the CIAV with the purpose of executing the process of demobilization'' agreed at the August summit.
However, whether the US will comply with the wishes of the presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador is still in question.
Officials and observers said it was unclear how the Bush administration could be compelled to turn over to the CIAV the remainder of a $50 million contra aid package, which expires in February.
``We hope the US will see its interest, and those of peace in Central America, lie in agreeing to the plan,'' said Mr. Reichler. ``But if it doesn't, then it will be up to the Hondurans to see that it does.''
It was a surprise that Honduras went along with the plan, according to observers here. But it appears doing so was the only way to get Nicaragua to suspend a suit it filed in the International Court of Justice in The Hague last week against Honduras for playing host to the contras.
Honduran President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo is highly sensitive on that subject, and is said not to want the court case - which Honduras would likely lose - to be his legacy when he leaves office in January. He was so determined to have the court case withdrawn that he stormed out of the meeting Monday night leaving the other presidents to work out a deal.
Under the accord, the suit will be suspended until June 1990.
The agreement also calls on the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran rebels to ``immediately'' cease hostilities and military operations that affect civilians or the electoral process, and to immediately resume talks with their governments.
The next summit will be held in Managua early in 1990.