Guatemala defies the common image of Central America as a place where nothing important happens without an American hand. On its own -- true, with a viciousness that repelled the United States -- Guatemala beat down a guerrilla challenge in the 1970s. Again on its own -- and with a promise that is attracting the United States now -- Guatemala is putting an elected civilian government atop the country's military-run power structure. The question is how the United States ought to reengage in this dominant Central American land.

The prime requirement is to keep full solidarity with the democratic cause. President-elect Vinicio Cerezo, 42, a man of courage and vision, won a huge popular mandate, and his Christian Democratic party controls the legislature. This gives him a foundation on which, necessarily by degrees, to assert the claims of democracy and law against a military unaccustomed to acknowledging either.

Some suggest the armed forces are ready to yield their traditional privileged but demeaning role as the far right's gendarme and to become a self-respecting professional army. But it's a long way from happening. The United States can help a bit by taking its cues in these matters directly from Mr. Cerezo -- in particular, by deferring all talk of military and police aid until he indicates interest. In Washington this week, he put this matter off. The United States also needs to be responsive to Guatemala's economic needs. Brazil's drought, pushing up Guatemalan coffee prices, won't be enough.

The second requirement for Washington is to subordinate its concern about Nicaragua to the American interest in a democratic Guatemala. A country whose whole modern history was bent by the American-directed coup of 1954, Guatemala has pursued neutrality in Central America's raing conflicts. Mr. Cerezo visited Managua before coming to Washington. He looks to a policy of "active neutrality," a vague concept but one that the apparent eclipse of the Contadora process may leave a little room for. Guatemala shares no border with Nicaragua, feels beyond the reach of its guerrillas, and hopes to gain both in trade and in regional standing by keeping lines open to Managua. In any event, no direct support that Guatemala might conceivably lend to U.S. policy in Nicaragua could serve Americans more than stability within Guatemala itself.

Guatemala has been a metaphor for state violence. Four hundred members of Mr. Cerezo's party have been assassinated, and yet men and women like him are still willing to put their lives on the line. His election is a moment of rare potential to a country that desperately needs democracy and peace. The United States must help him, carefully, to use it well.