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Political role for the contras

FORTUNATELY, an unusual mix of pressures continues to hold the fragile Central American peace process together - and even to charge it with a sense of urgency. If the plan succeeds, the contras must change overnight from a military to a political force; even if the plan does not succeed, the contras' future political role merits much more attention than it has been getting.

A few months ago the likelihood of diplomatic negotiations proceeding as far as they have was considered nil. The United States offer of a bipartisan peace plan, on the eve of discussions in Guatemala on the Arias plan, helped to galvanize the Central Americans. Instead of dickering over the Arias proposal, they signed on the dotted line.

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Nicaragua's democratic neighbors are tired of constant war on their borders.

The Sandinistas have been pushed to the bargaining table by a worsening economy, less-than-expected Soviet help, and growing pressure from their neighbors.

The thin glue of the Arias plan also continues to hold because the controversial details have been largely assigned to working groups and because none of the signers want to be accused of being first to pull out.

But little more holds the peace process in place than this common wish to succeed and a concensus of sorts that continued war is not in the region's best interests.

Most nations have strong reservations both about whether the plan can work as written and about whether it includes the important essentials. Such pressures threaten to sabotage the effort before it even reaches the cease-fire stage.

The Reagan administration has been caught between two constituencies. The Reagan-Wright plan was an effort to reach out to the majority of Democrats who oppose contra aid and have been pressing for a diplomatic solution.

In doing so, the White House has angered conservatives who charge it with selling the contras short. The President has accordingly backed away from his lukewarm endorsement for the Arias plan. In a further bow to the right, he plans to meet this week for the first time with a top contra military leader and former member of the Somoza national guard. Though the White House claims the need for a military update on the situation in Nicaragua, the meeting with Enrique Berm'udez sends the wrong signal at a delicate moment.

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Although contra supplies are said to be sufficient to carry the troops into December, the President may ask for renewed aid to the contras before the expected Nov. 7 cease-fire. All GOP presidential candidates support continued aid to the contras.

Both Democrats and Republicans, and indeed most of Nicaragua's Latin neighbors, harbor doubts that the Sandinistas will make promised democratic reforms. Many of them wonder if any plan can really lead to a political reconciliation of the contras inside Nicaragua. The most visible and well-to-do refugees would probably move to Miami; many others might flee to neighboring countries such as Honduras.

Honduras, which has been noticeably dragging its feet on the plan, may be concerned that any verification team might find contra bases within its borders - despite its insistence it has no such bases. As a key US ally, Honduras is in the best position to voice the many US reservations on the plan.

El Salvador, another US friend, has become one of the most vigorous supporters of the plan. Though the Duarte government is scheduled to talk with El Salvador's leftist guerrillas there about a cease-fire Sept. 15, the rebels have not specifically endorsed the Arias plan.

Nicaragua's contras have reluctantly endorsed the plan but say they will not lay down arms, must talk directly with the Sandinistas, and need substantial guarantees of personal safety.

In short, the framework for peace reached in Guatemala could come apart at any time. Fortunately, for the moment the forces of hope have had the upper hand; most parties see more to gain than lose by staying with diplomacy.

Whatever the eventual outcome, it is to be hoped that the US and its Central American neighbors learn something valuable from this experience. A return to the old ways - focusing only on stepped-up military pressure against the Sandinistas by the US-supplied contras - will not do.

The Reagan administration has long favored a military emphasis in helping the contras. Much more attention to the political side is needed. While Nicaragua's neighbors are not enamored of the Sandinistas, they are not convinced that the contras are a sound political alternative. Much of that persuasion job is up to the contras themselves. They need a clearer sense of who they are and what they can offer to the Nicaraguan people.

If their nation is not to return to endless war, should the peace process break down, the contras need a clearer, well-communicated sense of what they are really about and of whether that goal is achievable.

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