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END OF AN ERA IN LATIN AMERICA

END OF AN ERA IN LATIN AMERICA

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The Nicaraguan election has dealt the all-but-final blow to Marxist-Leninist revolution as an alternative in this hemisphere. It initiates the closing episode of the tumultuous era that began in 1959 with the Cuban Revolution and will presumably conclude with the fall of Fidel Castro.

Thankfully, this part of the world, like Eastern Europe, has finally given up Marx for Montesquieu. Even the Sandinistas, by showing mature acceptance of their defeat, have apparently learned to value the checks and balances on power that are the fundamental guarantee of Western civilization.Even if the Sandinistas had won the election last Sunday, it was already clear to them that their primitive attempt to establish a Marxist-Leninist government in Nicaragua was doomed.

This was first evident in 1987 at the meeting of Central American presidents, which convened at Esquipulas, Guatemala, to discuss the peace plan put forward by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. It was at that moment that the Sandinistas dropped their de facto claim to power enforced by military means, and acceded to a political settlement to the Nicaraguan civil war.

Although the U.S.-backed Contras contributed to the pressure on the Sandinistas to accept free elections, they were not the decisive factor. The transformation of the Sandinistas was primarily a consequence of the momentous changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

By the time of Esquipulas, it had became clear to the Sandinistas that the kind of help they needed to carry out their revolution would not be forthcoming from Mikhail Gorbachev or their rapidly collapsing Communist allies in Eastern Europe.

The Sandinistas knew quite well that, without Soviet backing, Cuba's support was useless. Cuba carries little political or military weight on its own because it is so isolated.

As realists, the Sandinistas decided to save what they could of their revolution.

Knowing they faced the risk of losing a free election, they thought that at least they could salvage their legitimacy as the major unified presence capable of influencing Nicaragua's future. The only other alternative was to suffer the same isolation as Cuba by trying to cling to power.

Unless significant splits, which are quite possible, emerge in the coming months from militant factions who refuse to disarm, the Sandinistas still have a very viable future.

The effect of the Nicaraguan elections on the enigma of Cuba is unclear. History is not only a matter of impersonal social forces, but of human beings; of chance and accidents.

Fidel Castro is a historical accident. Persons are unpredictable, and Cuba is a personalized regime.

But the election in Nicaragua makes Castro's choice strikingly clear: Either he can take the path of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua - who has followed the lead of Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia - or he can follow the path of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.

With each passing day, Castro seems less disposed to take the path of the Sandinistas.

As it relates to Mexico, the defeat of one-party rule at the Nicaraguan polls will certainly be used by the opposition to Mexico's ruling party, the PRI, to press for more rapid democratization.

Although the pace of democratization might be too slow, it has solidly been under way in Mexico for some time.

Long before the Sandinistas, the PRI - under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari - realized that democratization is a matter of their life or death as a viable party.

Salinas knows full well that his party will come to nothing if the system does not eventually open up fully.

Significantly, the Sandinista defeat can also be read as a fading out of the ``anti-gringo' sentiment that has plagued Latin America long past its historical reality.

After all, the Nicaraguan people elected the candidate openly endorsed by the president of the United States, George Bush, who has been a key supporter of arming the Contras.

And, contrary to predictions, the U.S. invasion of Panama last December did not unleash a nationalist backlash that cemented the Sandinista hold on power.

The abandonment of anti-gringo sentiment, which can also be noticed across Latin America, will be a key factor in confronting the problems of a Central America at peace.

The new peace will present President-elect Violeta Chamorro with two pressing tasks: reconciliation - among forces that have bitterly and bloodily fought for years - and economic reconstruction.

The first task can only be resolved by the Nicaraguans themselves. The second task, that of economic reconstruction, can be successfully resolved only through broad integration - not only with the rest of Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico, but with the heretofore customarily vilified United States as well.

The precedent of European integration is very important not only for the future of Central America, but of the surrounding region as well.

If the Europeans, after 2,000 years of killing each other, have found a way to understand each other, then so can Central Americans, Mexicans and North Americans. If the French and Germans can get together, why can't we?

The division of Central America into various countries is an artificial remnant of extreme decolonization.

Since these countries don't have national identity and lack economic, as well as political, viability on their own, the only solution for them is to unite into a regional common market and political association such as the European Community. These would be linked in turn with a larger integration in a North American community.

If these tiny countries remain alone in the 21st Century, they will remain the poor and impotent pawns of outside powers - a situation that has already led to so much bloodshed in this century.

Now that the ideological rift has diminished in Central America, the main threat to the promise of integration, as in Eastern Europe, will be resurgent nationalism.

The kind of democratic developments we have just witnessed in Nicaragua, however, will facilitate integration with each other and with the United States. When the same people who would migrate to the North can freely elect their leaders, outdated nationalist sentiment will readily yield to the practical appeal of economic integration.

Integration alone, of course, will not close the gap between rich and poor or reconcile freedom and equality. It will only be the condition for such a possibility.

As in the United States and Europe, the likely order will be a mixed economy: a free market with state intervention to alleviate gross inequality.

The Sandinista defeat, like the defeat of the Marxist Left generally, is the defeat of fantasy. The communist remedy to social injustice proved worse than the malady.

Now our challenge is to find the political imagination to address those injustices that have outlived their untenable solution.

Octavio Paz is a prominent Latin American author and journalist. He is best known for his seminal book on Mexico, the Labyrinth of Solitude. Paz's most recent book is One Earth, Four or five Worlds. He is the editor of the Mexico City-based journal, "Vuelta."

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