The success of the Nicaraguan rebels has fanned the hopes of revolutionaries in neighboring countries. But the Sandinistas' triumph over Anastasio Somoza might also, paradoxically, encourage peaceful solutions to the essentially class struggles in Latin America. Fear of a popular revolt -- which the Sandinistas have shown to be a practical possibility -- may cause the military regimes to surrender some of their power rather than lose it all.

Though El Salvador and Guatemala may have become too volatile for non-violent reconciliation between the people and their oppressors, there is still hope for a peaceful end to military rule in Honduras, Nicaragua's nextdoor neighbor to the north. It has not only made substantial progress toward a peaceful solution, with promised free elections next April, but its ruling military junta clearly feels threatened by the Sandinistas' victory.

The Sandinista regime, saddled with enough troubles of its own, repeatedly denies any intention of trying to export its revolution, Castro-style. But they may do the trick by example alone.

Honduras represents both an opportunity and a danger for the United States. If our policy-makers encourage the junta's tentative steps toward democracy, we could end up on the winning side for a change. But if they encourage the Honduran generals -- as they did Somoza -- to believe that any opposition is communist-inspired and should be crushed, we will once more emerge as the detested champion of the dictatorial status quo.

Our associate Bob Sherman crisscrossed Honduras talking with business leaders, politicians and workers. Everywhere, the Nicaraguan revolution is the dominant topic in any political discussion.

The regime itself reacts vehemently to suggestions that the scheduled elections may be rigged in favor of the National Party, which traditionally has had strong ties to the military. Obviously, suspicions of a fix might encourage uprising, and the generals would stand to lose more than they would if the opposition Liberal Party won.

Yet neutral observers remain skeptical. One U.S. analyst went so far as to say that only a Liberal victory would show the election was on the up-and-up.

That assessment may be a bit harsh on the junta. However reluctantly, the military dictatorship has made great strides toward social and economic reform in the past decade. Land reform, a rallying cry for Latin revolutionaries, has already begun in Honduras.

And the citizenry is not brutalized as viciously as it was in Somoza's Nicaragua, to judge from the rarity of complaints about human rights violations. As a U.S. official put it, comparing Honduras with Nicaragua under Somoza, "In Honduras, they don't shoot down grandmothers."

One thing the junta has going for it is the Hondurans' traditional fear of communism. And -- so far, at least -- the people tend to equate armed revolution, like Nicaragua's, with communism.

How accurate this public assessment of their neighbor's revolution is remains to be seen. Miguel d'Escoto, Nicaragua's new foreign minister -- a Maryknoll priest who lived for years in New York -- insists that Nicaragua's revolutionary government is dedicated to a purer form of democracy than the United States'. It is committed to free elections, he said, and noted that there are a constitution and a bill of rights that match U.S. models.

Nicaraguan officials concede that, in the present postwar chaos, there is often a vast difference between their philosophical ideals and the realities.

As D'Escoto described his efforts to build a foreign ministry from scratch: "I wish that after the revolution ended everyone could have gone off and slept for two weeks. But they didn't, and what we have is, well, it is like building a house -- except here, you just get the pillars up and then suddenly everyone starts moving in. You have no floors, no walls, but you have to start functioning."

If fear of what happened in Nicaragua moves the Honduran junta to renege on its promises of free elections, it could encourage the very revolutionary zeal the junta hopes to stifle. If, on the other hand, the junta holds to its present course, Honduras could become a showcase of peaceful democracy in Latin America.