Until House Speaker Jim Wright decided to play an active role in the cease-fire negotiations between the Sandinistas and the contras, the Sandinistas had been on the defensive, which had forced them to make important concessions.

Now, thanks to the behavior of the speaker, the focus of attention has shifted from the conflict inside Nicaragua to the conflict within the U.S. government. The result may well be the destruction of the contras, the undermining of the Central American peace plan and the eventual consolidation of the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas had made few concessions as the peace plan's original Nov. 5 deadline drew near. They had allowed one privately owned newspaper, La Prensa, to reopen and one radio station, Radio Catolica, to resume broadcasting religious, but not political, information. This is far from the complete freedom of the press and access to the media called for in Oscar Arias' peace plan.

The Sandinistas had also refused to enter into direct negotiations with the contras to establish a cease-fire, in contrast to Presidents Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador and Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala, both of whom had met face to face with their countries' respective armed guerrilla movements.

The Sandinistas' intransigence had caused international public opinion to turn against them. More important, it had increased the chances that the U.S. Congress would approve a new request from the Reagan administration for $270 million in aid for the contras. This was something the Sandinistas wanted to avoid at all costs. The $100 million in U.S. aid that the contras began receiving in early 1987 had allowed 12,000 contras to operate with growing success in two-thirds of Nicaraguan territory and to shoot down Soviet-supplied helicopters with increasing frequency. The contras' stepped-up military activity had also caused the Sandinistas to consume greater amounts of Soviet-supplied oil, obliging them to ask their Soviet patrons for more.

This is what led the Sandinistas to reverse their longstanding position that they would never negotiate with the contras and agreed instead to indirect negotiations mediated by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.

As the Reagan administration was too quick to point out, the Sandinistas' willingness to negotiate even indirectly with the contras gave the rebels increased legitimacy as a belligerent force. President Daniel Ortega obviously agreed. He tried to undo the damage by immediately insisting again on bilateral negotiations with the U.S. government, so as to revive the old image of the contras as dependent "puppets" of the United States.

The White House recognized the trap. It agreed to bilateral talks, but only in a regional context and only after some progress toward a cease-fire agreement had been made in indirect talks between the Sandinistas and the contras.

Having failed to achieve his goal with the Reagan administration, Ortega tried to enlist Wright to his cause. He succeeded. With the speaker's help, the Nicaraguan president managed to cast himself as a man of peace, to eclipse the mediating role of Cardinal Obando y Bravo, to relocate the cease-fire negotiations from Nicaragua -- where they belong -- to Washington and to reinstate the United States as the key player in what had until then been a Central American peace process.

By undermining the contras, the House speaker removes the only real incentive the Sandinistas have to negotiate a cease-fire that is a meaningful first step toward a democratic opening, and not a contra surrender.

Ortega's current proposal is the latter. It asks the rebels to disarm and to accept a vague amnesty prior to cease-fire negotiations and on terms dictated by the Sandinistas. These provisions violate a key principle of the Central American peace plan: "simultaneity," or the requirement that all the elements of the plan -- including the establishment of democratic freedoms, the end of cross-border support for rebel movements, the granting of amnesty and the implementation of cease-fire agreements -- go into effect at the same time.

No doubt Wright believes that his active involvement will help bring peace to the troubled Central American region. But "giving peace a chance" does not mean weakening the contras and eventually sending them to Miami. It means supporting their efforts to negotiate a meaningful cease-fire that will allow them to exchange their bullets for ballots in a democratic Nicaragua.

The writer is director of the Latin American Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.