Administration sees progress toward negotiations in Central America
Senior Reagan administration officials say several developments in Central America are now working in their favor. At the same time, officials caution that they do not see any quick solution to the region's problems in sight, either on the diplomatic or military fronts.
The officials also acknowledge that some aspects of their multifaceted policy are not working well, and that includes the administration's relations with a reluctant Congress.
Although there is little affection in the Congress for Sandinista-led Nicaragua, there is also considerable reluctance to continue providing secret funds to the ''counterrevolutionaries,'' or contras, who are fighting the Sandinistas. The contras themselves have failed to follow up on promises to launch a new offensive deeper into Nicaragua. Such an offensive had been predicted by some contra leaders for mid-July.
But the administration officials say that compared with the situation of early this year, the following developments are signs of improvement:
* The battlefield situation in El Salvador has taken a decided turn for the better over the past month or two, officials say. Six months ago, their private assessment was that the situation facing the US-supported government forces looked ''very bad.'' Today, one official says, ''there has been a real turnaround, with the government holding the initiative and retaking territory in one important province, San Vicente.
* A source with access to intelligence reports says that the Salvadorean navy has been effective in interdicting ammunition shipped to El Salvador by Nicaragua across the Gulf of Fonseca.
* On the diplomatic front, State Department officials say that the pressure on Nicaragua has been paying off. They point to tentative olive branches raised by both Cuba and Nicaragua as evidence that this is the case.
The most optimistic statement on the possibility of a negotiated settlement of Central America's conflicts came on Sunday from the US ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. In an appearance on the CBS television program ''Face the Nation,'' Mrs. Kirkpatrick said that the Contadora group of four Latin American nations has made ''some progress'' toward a Central America settlement. She said that an offer from Cuba's President Fidel Castro to end, on a reciprocal basis, the flow of arms and foreign advisers to the region was another sign of progress. The ambassador described her own view of the negotiating progress as one of ''guarded optimism.''
The Nicaraguans, meanwhile, deny that their recently announced six-point peace plan resulted from American pressure. But State Department officals are convinced that it is indeed a result of such pressure. They also point to the conciliatory statements that Mr. Castro made in a talk with reporters last week as another response to US pressures, including recently announced American naval exercises. Some US intelligence reports supposedly suggest that both the Soviet Union and Cuba have been advising the Sandinistas not to provoke the United States.
But there is considerable debate within the administration as to whether or not the Sandinistas would, as one official put it, ''stop trying to destabilize their neighbors and make a deal.''
Some experts say that the Cuban and Nicaraguan peace overtures may merely be tactical moves, aimed at easing American pressure. Others point out that Castro's statement to reporters was consistent with statements he has made in the past, although this time the Cuban leader seemed to be more explicit.
But Ambassador Kirkpatrick found encouragement in the fact that the Nicaraguans would agree to meet on a multilateral basis with representatives of the other Central American nations, including El Salvador.
On July 30, foreign ministers from the five Central American nations ended, without any apparent success, a conference sponsored by the Contadora group of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama. A communique indicated that there were major differences still to be resolved between Nicaragua and its neighbors. Another meeting was to be held later this month.
But Mrs. Kirkpatrick said that the Contadora group had made progress in that it started out some months ago unable even to agree on what the problem was in Central America. The group had now reached the point where it could define the problem, she said, and had agreed on principles aimed at resolving it.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick said the vote in the US House of Representatives last Thursday, aimed at cutting off secret aid to the contras in Nicaragua, was not the unmitigated setback to the administration that some observers took it be. She noted that the amendment that finally prevailed in the House found Nicaragua guilty of violating its promises to its people and accused Nicaragua of exporting arms and other supports to guerrillas in neighboring countries.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick recommended that the US continue ''in all appropriate ways'' to encourage the Nicaraguans to end ''their warlike activities against their neighbors.''
The conventional wisdom in Washington has been to say that the House vote on cutting aid for the contras was mostly symbolic, because the Republican-dominated Senate will not act to cut the aid. But critics of the policy in the House subcommittee on intelligence intend to make further moves to cut the aid by attaching further amendments to the defense appropriations bill.
In the Senate intelligence committee, Dave Durenberger, a Republican who has criticized the covert support for anti-Sandinista guerrillas, warned that the administration may confront more difficulties in the Senate than it had been led to expect. In an interview, the Minnesota senator said that the covert aid had gone well beyond what was originally intended: a small-scale and well-controlled program.
Mr. Durenberger said that senators had not been well briefed on the administration's actions in Central America and that if the administration ''continues to just ignore us, you'll see some of us take a much stronger role.''