Revisiting Central America

President Clinton's swing through Central America this week will have less direct impact than it should have. That's because a billion-dollar aid package the president hoped to have in hand is instead tied up in Congress.

A number of lawmakers, apparently, put the letter of the budget law - requiring offsets for any new spending - above the spirit of charity and humanitarian assistance. Anyone (and thanks to TV coverage that's about everyone) who's seen the destruction left in Honduras and Nicaragua from last fall's hurricanes has to question the validity of drawing the budget line here.

Mr. Clinton vows to untangle the aid matter on returning home, and we urge Congress to be accommodating.

American generosity has special application in Central America. This is a region recently torn by civil wars in which Washington played an active, and often tragic, role. The countries most devastated by conflict - El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala - have all begun a healing process. Democratic institutions, though still tender, are working. El Salvador's elections this week underscore the hopes. Though social and economic inequities still divide that country, its political leadership is moving toward the center. Compromise and partnership between old enemies is possible.

Also possible is greater cooperation among the region's nations, as various working groups formed to coordinate environmental and economic issues attest.

International help is needed to rebuild, boost trade, and strengthen basic services. In these efforts, the US must forthrightly take the lead.

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