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After wars and hurricane; Central America: Clinton visit promises constructive next stage for relations in hemisphere.


THE MOST important thing the United States can do now for the little states of Central America is provide the nearly $1 billion in emergency aid that President Clinton asked of Congress. And the most important part of the aid is its substantial forgiveness of Nicaraguan and Honduran debts and its two years of grace for other repayments.

President Clinton's swing through Central America, meeting its leaders in one room, heralds a new relationship. Before, the CIA was heavily involved in right-wing and brutal regimes that went beyond legitimate suppression of Communist-influenced insurgent movements in Guatemala and El Salvador. It supported right-wing insurgents against a leftist regime in Nicaragua.

The need now is to move beyond those struggles. Efforts were thwarted by Hurricane Mitch last autumn. The devastation forced a halt to debt repayment by Nicaragua and Honduras. Mr. Clinton did not try to oblige the political leaders of Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Belize on all points. These include fairness in U.S. immigration policy, which favors Nicaraguans, free trade and access to U.S. markets, and full membership in NAFTA.

But he properly moved beyond the agenda of Ronald Reagan, the last president to visit Central America in 1982.

For their part, the little regimes must do more to address their problems by acting together in the economic sense.

The wars of the 1980s are over. Human rights are greater now in all the countries concerned. Reconciliation has begun, though it is by no means complete.

The countries' well-being must have been in the U.S. interest, or the Reagan administration would not have spent so much blood (theirs) and treasure (ours) attending to it.

It still is.

Physical and civil reconstruction after the wars and hurricane are essential. The hemisphere will be healthier if the Clinton trip is remembered for starting a constructive era in the relationship.

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