Mexico the peacemaker?

United States lawmakers and public are not the only ones worried about the rising turbulence in Central America. Mexico, geographically closer and politically more vulnerable, is even more directly concerned. So when Mexican President Lopez Portillo speaks out about what can be done to avoid conflagration in the region, the US should pay heed. What makes the present situation dangerous in fact is that the US seems to be marching out front by itself instead of acting in concert with its Latin American neighbors.

Speaking in Managua, Mr. Lopez Portillo warned that a US intervention in the region would be a ''gigantic historical error.'' He proposed, rather, that Mexico serve as a bridge between the polarized forces in El Salvador and play a more active role in fostering dialogue between the US and Cuba. He also offered a three-point strategy to end the strain between Washington and Nicaragua: renunciation by the US of any threat or use of force against Nicaragua; a reduction in the Nicaraguan arms buildup once Nicaraguan exile groups were disarmed in Honduras and forbidden training in the US; and the conclusion by Nicaragua of nonaggression pacts with the US and its neighbors.

These proposals merit consideration. The US has labeled leftist Nicaragua ''a totalitarian, militarized state.'' Yet it is hard to see how the Sandinista government can be persuaded to reduce its military buildup while Nicaraguan exiles make incursions into Nicaragua from Honduras and while the US allows exile training camps in Florida. As long as such activities continue, how is it possible to allay Sandinista fears that the US is trying to destabilize the regime?

Washington, however, has taken an extreme position, insisting that the Sandinistas first end their arms buildup, stop all support for the Salvadoran guerrillas, and guarantee political pluralism before the US halts the training activity and otherwise improves ties. While this is clearly unacceptable to the Sandinistas, there ought to be room for a compromise based on the Mexican proposals.

At the heart of the issue is how the turmoil in Central America is interpreted. The Reagan administration tends to focus on the export of revolution by the Soviet Union and its Cuban client. Yet, as Mr. Lopez Portillo observed, the convulsions are the result of ''misery, tyranny, and oppression'' and cannot be put in the context of the conflict between East and West or capitalism and socialism. To do so merely brings about the result one seeks to avoid -- creating Marxist states beholden to Cuba and the Russians.

This is not to accept tolerantly the authoritarian practices in Nicaragua which seem to be threatening a pluralist society. The Mexican President pointedly urged the Sandinistas to preserve political freedom. Indeed the leader of the ruling junta, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, reiterated Nicaragua's commitment to political pluralism during Mr. Lopez Portillo's visit and also proposed a peace plan that would include negotiations with the US, nonaggression pacts with Central America, and the establishment of joint border patrols with Honduras and Costa Rica to stop guerrilla movement between the three nations.

These, along with Mexico's proposals, are conciliatory enough to warrant thoughtful scrutiny in Washington. Crucial issues are at stake, even the increased radicalization of Central America. President Reagan should not treat lightly the advice of his friend to the south who urges the US to take this ''one last opportunity'' to avert catastrophe. The American people themselves are signalling they do not think US military intervention is the solution. Why not try negotiation -- and the offer of Mexico's good offices?

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