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Good Deal on Contras

A CERTAIN war weariness has set in among the major players on Central America. Salvadorans, after a decade of killing and corruption and very little in the way of land reform, have voted for change in government. Nicaragua is more willing than ever to talk democracy in return for peace and a chance to rebuild its war-wracked economy. And in Washington too, the fight seems to have gone out of the partisans. No more talk of ``freedom fighters'' routing the Sandanistas, or (alternatively) cutting the contras off at the knees.

The deal worked out by the White House and Congress for keeping the remnant of the Nicaraguan rebel army camped out in Honduras is a good one. It concentrates Daniel Ortega's mind on fulfilling his promise to hold free and fair elections. It prevents the restive contras - reduced to abusing their handful of prisoners - from becoming a band of brigands. It allows the five Central American presidents time to proceed with their plan for disarming and democratizing the region while reintegrating the contras into Nicaragua. It presents to the Soviet Union and Cuba (as President Bush said) ``an obligation and an opportunity'' to play a more constructive role.

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And finally, it takes the steam out of what was probably the most divisive issue in Washington during Ronald Reagan's tenure. (Interesting that it comes just as the layers of Iran-contra lies get peeled away from Oliver North's sorry record.)

Secretary of State James Baker did a very good job in working out a plan that can be supported by congressional Democrats, Honduras, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez, and contra leaders. It's a good sign that the Bush administration means to make a clean break from its predecessor's reliance on force and deception in a region that cries out for diplomacy and openness.

A region weary with war needs time and help to find true peace. These latest events - especially the change in US policy - make that more possible.

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