Warming up to Argentina

This week's visit in Washington by Argentine President-elect Roberto Eduardo Viola spotlights the Argentine military government's hope that it can get along better with Ronald Reagan than it did Jimmy Carter.

There is good reason for such hope. Mr. Reagan has already begun to downplay human rights as a major issue in United States foreign policy. During the Carter years, Argentina and the US were at odds over the issue -- the US charging major violations of human rights by the Argentine military and the Argentine government claiming that Washington simply did not understand the reality of the Argentine situation. But during this period at least 5,000 Argentines disappeared and 10,000 others were jailed for suspected political opposition to the government.

Then, when the Carter administration imposed its grain embargo on the Soviet Union following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Argentina began supplying the Russians with about two-fifths of the grain they would have obtained from the US. That, of course, angered the Carter administration -- and relations between Washington and Buenos Aires were further strained.

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Now both General Viola and President Reagan seem bent on improving relations. The general's visit is a sure indication that the two countries are on a much friendlier course than before. Evidence of this turn- around is the Reagan administration's expected lifting of the ban on military sales and assistance to Argentina, originally imposed in 1978 by President Carter in protest over Argentina's human rights violations.

The wisdom of any arms resumption will certainly be questioned by many people in both countries. There is reason for concern. Not only would such resumption contribute to the arms spiral in Latin America; it would also bolster a military government which has yet to soften its repression and which has many questions to answer, particularly to its own people, about its human rights performance.

That performance has been poor. Despite the criticism heaped on the Argentine military by the US and other nations for the past five years, there has been precious little improvement. Torture still continues. People still disappear. And opposition to the military government still is met with a variety of repressive and brutal tactics.

It can be argued that President Carter's particular approach on human rights was not the most effective one, but the emphasis of his policy was constructive and positive. The US would lose its moral force in the world if it dropped human rights as a cardinal tenet of foreign policy.

It can be hoped that during the Reagan- Viola talks this point was emphasized to the Argentines. Moreover, and even more important, it can be hoped that General Viola when he assumes office later this month will begi n significantly to improve Argentine's human rights stance.

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