THE LATEST Latin country to be going democratic--the sixth in the last few years -- is Uruguay. Last Sunday it held its first presidential election since the military took over in 1973. Two politicians, working at odds yet pursuing a similar goal, made it happen. One was Wilson Ferreira Aldunate, bane of the generals' existence, who in exile agitated for democracy and was immediately arrested upon his return last June. That set the stage for Julio Maria Sanguinetti to negotiate the formula that let a reluctant military promise to yield power. It agreed to elections but demanded that Mr. Ferreira and another major party leader not run and that the military avoid purge or prosecution for past abuses. Mr. Sanguinetti won. He takes over a torn and tired country, and an economic mess.

It seems the generals in Latin America are never ready to go quietly and in a timely fashion. They hold on long past the time needed to achieve the immediate purposes of their seizure of power. Only when they have run things into the ground do they let the civilians back in. Under the circumstances, it is heartening that the civilians -- the true patriots -- always seem prepared to pick up the pieces. You could see it happening last weekend not only in Uruguay but in neighboring Argentina, where President Raul Alfonsin neatly resolved the truly difficult Argentine side of the century-old Beagle Island border dispute with Chile.

Pope John Paul II, as mediator, had produced a solution that was bound to arouse Argentine nationalists still smarting from their defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas war. To draw the poison from an issue for which Argentina almost went to war in 1978, and to reduce military influence, Mr. Alfonsin needed a broad display of public support. Arguing for peace and thefuture, he conducted a "consultation" in which an unexpectedly large 73 percent of the voters took part and which gave an overwhelming 79 percent approval to his plan.

That leaves Chile as the one country in the once and -- one hopes -- future all-democratic "southern cone" with nothing to celebrate. On the contrary, as Uruguay and Argentina move on, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who has gone back to open reliance on military force, seems intent on keeping Chile indefinitely a military dictatorship. He and Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, 30 years in the saddle in nearby Paraguay, run just about the last police regimes in Latin America south of Havana. A lovely pair.