After several decades of taking a backstage role to pressing international and social concerns in other parts of the world, the vast region often termed Latin America by the US public is now moving to the very forefront of the cutting issues of the 1980s. Reagan administration concern about communist and Cuban influence in the Caribbean has played a large part of that focus on the Southern Hemisphere - and prompted the recent Grenada invasion. But the crucial point is that the area as a whole - from Mexico, with its new oil wealth, to Brazil, with its increasing industrialization, to Argentina, which has just held its first free election in a decade - is now undergoing significant economic and political transformation.
For the United States in particular the challenge is especially acute: namely , how to best conduct relations with its southern neighbors in a way that fosters the social and economic progress essential to the region and at the same time ensure a framework of political stability in which economic growth can occur.
In this regard, all Americans - north and south of the Rio Grande River - cannot help but welcome the outcome of the Argentine elections. In leading his Radical Party to victory in what has turned out to be (as of this writing ) a surprisingly large margin, lawyer and former congressman Raul Alfonsin has injected a profound new element of change in the affairs of Argentine society. Although Mr. Alfonsin's social formal agenda did not differ all that much from that of his opponent - Italo Argentino Luder, candidate of the Peronist party - that the social democratic-oriented Radicals were able to triumph at the polls is itself a stunning shift of direction for the nation. The Peronistas have dominated Argentine politics for the past 38 years.
The immediate question is whether President-elect Alfonsin will be able to bring about the sense of national reconciliation necessary to govern the nation, given the range of formidable problems now facing him. The economy is in a shambles. Inflation is soaring. There is a foreign debt of $40 billion. A new loan of $500 million expected in late November as the first installment in a $1. 5 billion monetary transfusion from international lenders will not by itself be enough to solve the nation's fiscal problems, particularly since calls are mounting for substantial wage hikes.
Mr. Alfonsin, for his part, will surely move quickly for a renegotiation of the external debt. Obviously, the major Western banking nations have every reason for proceeding with such a renegotiation in a manner that recognizes Argentina's sensitivity about the debt issue.
There is also the matter of the military. Mr. Alfonsin has vowed to restore human rights to the nation, following seven years of military rule and what was in effect a civil war between the military and dissident groups. Thousands of Argentinians disappeared during the mid-to-late 1970s. Will the military allow a new government, if it so wishes, to begin prosecutions of officers responsible for the repression of that period? The military, which was forced to promise civilian elections after it lost mass support following Argentina's defeat in the Falklands war, seems more than willing to let a new civilian government grapple with the nation's economic woes. But if it felt itself directly threatened, its support for civilian rule could be expected to diminish very quickly.
Clearly, however, the key to what happens during the next year will be in the hands of those Argentines still living with the memory of Juan Peron. Many influential elements within the Peronist grouping - particularly the labor unions - will not take defeat lightly. One reason, of course, is that Mr. Alfonsin has won the backing of many independent and younger voters and has pulled some votes from Peronista ranks. Thus, there is the considerable threat to the Peronistas that Mr. Alfonsin could continue to broaden his political base. He has called also for trade-union reform, a position anathema to union front offices. Will responsible elements of the Peronista movement reconcile themselves to the role of a loyal opposition? Or will the temptation be strong to foment strife - through street demonstrations and work stoppages - and prod the military into regaining power and deposing Mr. Alfonsin?
Such questions will be answered during the weeks and months ahead. Meantime, all persons committed to the ideal of democratic government cannot help but rejoice in the Argentine election.