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Contra aid: checkpoints ahead

BOTH the military battle in Nicaragua and the political battle within the United States over how best to influence its course are far from over. The green light finally given by a narrow margin of the House to the President's $100 million aid package to the ``contra'' rebels probably says more about President Reagan's leadership skills than anything else. Few in Congress appear convinced that anything short of much more massive aid or US intervention could turn the tide in the guerrillas' fight against the Marxist-led Sandinistas.

Fortunately there will be other checkpoints along the way. The aid will be sent in installments. Before the second one, in October, the President and a special congressional commission would have to verify that no reasonable chance for negotiations in Nicaragua exists. A bipartisan congressional commission will monitor use of the money by contra forces to guard against diversion and profiteering. And a new round of congressional elections comes up in November.

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The best part of the contra aid package may be the $300 million in economic assistance included for the neighboring democracies of Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador. All would be partners in any eventual regional peace treaty signed.

No one in the US wants to see Nicaragua become a Soviet military base or remain a Marxist state. The White House insists it is determined to see Managua's government evolve into or be replaced by a democracy. But modification of Managua's Marxism or its containment may prove to be far more realistic. And a negotiated solution, such as offered by the Contadora talks, is the best route for getting there.

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