WITH Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's election victory in Nicaragua last month, the contra resistance lost its reason for being. The president-elect, along with the outgoing Sandinistas and regional leaders (plus a strong hint from Washington), called on the contras to surrender their weapons and return to their homes. A promising accord was reached last week in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The contras' demobilization, under international supervision, would start by April 20, five days before Mrs. Chamorro takes office. But the agreement is vaguely worded, and details must be worked out.
That might not be easy. Many of the resistance fighters are reluctant to disarm. Why? Because they don't trust their bitter enemy, the Sandinistas, whose heavily armed military remains intact. Because, as a matter of pride, they resent the lack of symmetry in being required to disperse while the Sandinistas are still in power. Because they may not fully trust Mrs. Chamorro - or may be envious that she is receiving acclaim and credit that battle-scarred contras think they should share. Because they know that once they disband they will have little leverage in pressing what one observer calls the contras' ``union demands'' for land, jobs, and security.
These are, in varying degrees, valid concerns. Chamorro, in cooperation with the Sandinistas, the United States, and the international peacekeeping force that will oversee the demobilization of the contras, should do all possible to guarantee the contras' physical safety and their successful reintegration into the economic, social, and political life of Nicaragua.
But Chamorro needs the contras' help to resolve a catch-22: They don't want to disband until assured that the new president can protect and assist them, but political legitimacy and authority will elude Chamorro so long as the contras appear capable of defying her orders.
The contras are understandably protective of their own interests. But in the larger interest of ensuring a smooth transition to democratic government in Nicaragua - and eliminating a pretext for the Sandinistas to renege - the contras should take a leap of trust and lay down their arms.