The danger of war in Central America has generated a growing list of overlapping, often unrelated peace initiatives, risking confusion and scattering diplomatic energy in several directions at once.
The accelerating pace of various, sometimes conflicting efforts raises the prospect that by directing their time and attention toward a number of undertakings, U.S. and Latin American officials could fail to pay enough attention to any single track to make it succeed.
With that apparently in mind, the Organization of American States bureaucracy and most of its membership have been cool to suggestions from the Reagan administration that the OAS also get involved in regional peacemaking. Similarly, a group of South American nations considered joining the four-nation Contadora group in sponsoring Central American peace talks, but decided to help avoid confusion by confining themselves to a statement supporting the Contadora effort.
Participants in the recent Contadora conference in Panama said the idea of adding to the number of countries involved or inviting OAS participation was judged unwise by foreign ministers of the four Contadora countries that began the effort last January on Contadora Island off Panama: Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela.
The Contadora effort originally was designed to try to ease tension between Nicaragua and its neighbors. But the group gradually has been drawn into to a series of overlapping problems in the region, including the civil war in El Salvador. This has occurred as various fighting forces and governments throughout Central America, as well as outside interested parties such as the United States and Cuba, have given it their support and asked for its mediation in their own conflicts.
The overlapping diplomacy made possible by jet travel and instant communications was vividly illustrated during last weekend's Contadora meeting. While the four Contadora and five Central American foreign ministers were debating how to reduce tensions behind closed doors in Panama, U.S. special envoy Richard Stone flew to Bogota, Colombia, for talks with Salvadoran rebel leader Ruben Zamora.
Stone and the Contadora group were both focusing on tensions running through Washington, Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and El Salvador. But there seemed to be little connection between the U.S. emissary's swift travels and the three days of discussions on the seventh floor of Panama's sleek National Bank building.
Colombian Foreign Minister Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo, for example, was busy with his colleagues in Panama trying to find a formula for Central American peace talks while his president, Belisario Betancur, was busy back in Bogota shepherding the first meeting between Stone and a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the political arm of the Salvadoran guerrilla movement.
Similarly, Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto of Nicaragua, a key to the Contadora efforts in Panama, was meeting with Stone in Managua yesterday only 48 hours after returning from the three days in Panama and denouncing his Central American colleagues for preventing progress by following a line set by the United States.
All parties concerned have announced their support for the Contadora effort. Yet Salvadoran leftist sources say they and the U.S. envoy have scheduled Stone's first meeting with the full rebel leadership in principle for the second week in August, with no indication of how it will mesh, if at all, with the next meeting of the four Contadora foreign ministers with their Central American colleagues. That meeting, scheduled for about the same time, is due to begin what the Contadora group last weekend depicted as a "new phase" in efforts to prevent war in the area.
The United States is not a direct participant in the Contadora peacemaking effort. But with deep U.S. involvement in Central America, including upcoming military maneuvers on land, sea and in the air, Washington casts such a shadow over the region that it is difficult to imagine meaningful Contadora discussions if the United States is concentrating exclusively on the Stone effort.
At the same time, the Democratic Revolutionary Front sent a message to the Salvadoran government's Peace Commission July 17 suggesting that because the commission enjoys a degree of autonomy, the guerrilla leadership would be willing to begin a dialogue, according to Salvadoran leftist sources. The Peace Commission replied positively 10 days ago, the informants said, and now moves are under way to set up preliminary talks parallel to, but separate from, the talks with Stone.
"We could meet anywhere with the Peace Commission," a Salvadoran rebel official said.
This means that while Stone, in the U.S. view, tries to set up a dialogue between the guerrillas and President Alvaro Magana's U.S.-sponsored government, the guerrillas report they already have set up such a dialogue with the Peace Commission, which was established at U.S. urging for just such a purpose. Guerrilla sources said the confusion is only apparent because, in the rebel view, Stone is not a mediator between the rebels and the Salvadoran government, but rather an emissary from President Reagan speaking to the guerrillas for the United States.
Adding to the layers is the new U.S. commission headed by former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger. Although the Kissinger group is mandated to focus on longer-term U.S. policy for Central America, many Latin American officials view his reentry into U.S. diplomacy as an avenue for participation in the current peace making as well.
President Luis Alberto Monge of Costa Rica, for example, has already written to Kissinger citing Costa Rica's determination to retain its democratic system free from the region's armed struggles and offering whatever help Costa Rica can provide as Kissinger weighs what the United States should do. Monge already has played a key role in setting up the first contacts between Stone and the Salvadoran leftists.
Also in the background as diplomacy is played out here in the region are congressional efforts to halt U.S. financing of antigovernment guerrillas attacking Nicaragua and reduce U.S. aid for the Salvadoran armed forces. In the final analysis, some Latin American officials fear, Washington's emphasis in Central American policy may have more influence on what happens here than the area's own frantic diplomacy, with or without Stone and Kissinger.