Washington — Amid the continuing conflagration in Central America and the turmoil surrounding Latin America's whopping foreign debt, it is easy to overlook another and perhaps more important hemisphere trend: the region's ''re-democratization.''
Although the re-democratization is not taking place everywhere nor is the movement uniform throughout Latin America, the region's two pacesetters - Argentina and Brazil - are both committed, albeit shakily in the case of Brazil, to the process.
Brazil's presidential elections Jan. 15 are expected to nudge Latin America's largest nation toward civilian rule, although the military is likely to play a minor, but continuing, role in government.
Argentina led the way in late 1983 as its military returned to the barracks after eight years in office following the election of Raul Alfonsin as president.
Uruguay was next as Julio Maria Sanguinetti edged past three rivals last month to become that nation's first civilian leader in a decade.
''This return to democracy probably will have more impact on Latin America than any other issue,'' commented Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi on a recent visit here. ''It is one of the most exciting developments of our times.''
The Brazilian election has been marred by skulduggery by the military's candidate in an effort to circumvent the apparent will of the majority of Brazilians, but the vote is likely to give the presidency to opposition candidate Tancredo Neves.
Of equal importance to this evident return to democracy has been a growing respect for human rights and basic freedoms such as freedom of the press throughout the region. Newspapers have fewer restraints on them and the censorship that remains is less onerous.
While the Reagan administration, obviously pleased with these developments, claims some credit for the democratic movement, many Latin Americans say that much of the credit should go to the earlier Carter administration for its strong human rights stand.
They do not deny the importance of the Reagan White House's strong proclamations in favor of democracy, but they suggest that the reasons for the re-democratization go back much further than the four years of Mr. Reagan's presidency.
Argentine President Alfonsin is one who speaks with fervor when talking of the impact of Mr. Carter's policy on the region.
He and other Latin Americans demonstrated their enthusiasm for Carter when the former President visited South America in November.
In addition, the military has been sharply discredited in a number of Latin American countries.
In Argentina, the generals went down to defeat at the hands of the British in the South Atlantic war over the Falkland Islands. But the generals' defeat was as much political as it was military.
The human rights' abuses, together with the dictatorship imposed on all facets of Argentine life, simply became too much for the Argentine people.
''They revolted at the ballot box,'' commented the mass circulation Clarin several months ago.
That could be said about a number of countries. It is obvious that democracy is much desired by the majority of Latin Americans.
At the moment, 15 countries in the region have civilian presidents or are about to elect them: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Although these nations are at various stages of the re-democratization process, they do share something in common. All are democracies or clearly headed in the direction of a degree of civilian rule.
Only five of the region's countries have yet to move toward that rule: Chile, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. Some would include English-speaking Guyana and Dutch-speaking Suriname in this list of dictatorships, although they are not in the same situation as the other dictatorships on the list.
Moreover, Nicaragua's recent election, marred by the lack of an effective opposition and the election of one of its former Sandinista guerrilla commanders , may be edging that country toward a limited democratization.
Finally, all the English-speaking, former British colonies of the Caribbean have civilian governments now that Grenada has elected Herbert Blaize as its prime minister.
Carrying on the tradition of British parliamentary rule, these countries have elected legislatures. They are Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Some hemisphere analysts caution against too much optimism about the current trend. They note that there is a cyclical tradition of democratic rule and dictatorial rule in Latin America.
In the 1950s, the majority of Latin American nations were dictatorships; by the 1970s, democracy took hold in most countries; and later in the 1970s, the trend turned back to dictatorships. Now, democracies are again the vogue.
Observers also say that only a few of the countries that are among the democracies today have established democratic traditions.
The list would include Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Venezuela.
For Latin American democrats, the challenge at this juncture is to build on the current democratic trend and to implant democracy's roots more firmly.