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Nicaraguans hope that changing of the guard in Washington could lead to early resumption of aid

A CHAPTER in history is ending.

For many Central Americans, that is how the result of the Nov. 3 US election is perceived. Gone is the Republican-funded anticommunist effort in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. The Panama invasion, which kicked strongman Manuel Noreiga out of town, is fast fading from memory. And nascent democracies have begun to take root.

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On a per capita basis, this region has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of US military and economic aid in the world in recent years. But with the end of the cold war, the tension here has unwound rather quickly. Now, the aid flow is ebbing in Nicaragua and elsewhere; with economic woes at home, the United States cannot afford to continue it. Even before Nov. 3, world attention was drifting away from this relatively calm - if no less poverty-stricken - stage.

Still, as with the end of many relationships, there is some trepidation about what comes next.

No one here knows quite what to expect from President-elect Clinton. His focus is known to be domestic, not foreign policy, but he has made no appointments or policy statements on Latin America - except to express his qualified support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and his opposition to automatic repatriation of Haitian refugees.

This lack of attention is greeted with relief by some who consider themselves the victims of past US interference. Nicaraguans, for example, expected "reactivation" by now. Hyperinflation was conquered last year, and this was to be the year of economic recovery. But for various reasons, including a freeze on $104 million in promised US aid, it has not happened.

Since June, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, a longtime critic of Nicaragua's leftist Sandinistas, has blocked US aid. Senator Helms is appalled by continuing control of the Nicaraguan military and police by Sandinistas. The government deems this powersharing arrangement necessary to keep the Sandinista-controlled unions from sabotaging economic reforms.

Establishing new conditions for the aid, Helms pushed for a purge of the police force and a settlement on confiscated property (some of which belongs to wealthy Nicaraguans living in Miami who are now US citizens and campaign contributors). Managua has taken some steps toward complying. Now, sources in both capitals say the money will probably be released before Christmas.

Meanwhile, the vacuum of solid clues about what Mr. Clinton will do in Central America is being filled by speculation.

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On the street, people associate Clinton with the only Democrat they can remember: Jimmy Carter. "It's worrying. If it weren't for Carter, the Sandinistas would not have come to power. They killed my son and my brother," says Manuel Mesa, a veteran Managua taxi driver. "I don't know what these Democrats are like but I hope they're not like Carter,"

It is expected that, like President Carter, a new Democratic administration will emphasize human rights, justice, and development of democratic institutions. It also may funnel fewer dollars through government economic stabilization programs, choosing instead to spend more on individual development projects that tend to produce more obvious results for the lower class.

Leaders here are concerned about Clinton's support for NAFTA, which they worry is making Mexico more attractive, siphoning away foreign investment and jobs. Funny. Democrats in Washington voice the same concerns about effects on their home states.

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