No time for siestas on Latin America

It may be understandable in an election-year summer, but the United States appears bent on taking a siesta on Latin American affairs. Conditions there - insurgencies and foreign debt impeding the economic progress that comes slowly even in the best of times - are not idly awaiting clarity about who will take over in Washington next January.

Because the region is vital to the US, the American people need not accept the argument that progress cannot be made toward reaching a bipartisan consensus.

Unfortunately, the Central American issue has become increasingly politicized , with the Republican White House generally taking a hard-line ''anticommunist'' position and Democrats seeking some form of accommodation with insurgent forces. And as noted by such hemispheric specialists as Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute, while the American people as a whole don't want the region to come under Marxist domination, they are also not prepared to take decisive action to prevent such a situation - including seeking greater US military involvment in the region, or funding a large-scale economic assistance program, as proposed by the Kissinger Commission. In short, the public remains ambivalent about just what actions the US should take regarding the region as a whole.

The point is that the time is clearly at hand for the American people to come to grips with its role regarding its Southern Hemisphere neighbors. To cite just some examples as to why that is increasingly evident: In Honduras, that nation's new military leaders are beginning to pull back somewhat from their close military linkage with the US. Honduran leaders want more US financial assistance; they want greater Honduran control in joint military matters. In El Salvador, it seems increasingly likely that President Duarte will later this year seek some form of accommodation - though not formal power-sharing - with insurgents. And regarding Nicaragua, the US seems to be muting somewhat, if not backing off from, its support of the contras. The Reagan administration may not like the Sandinista government. But it may be coming around to the view that it will have to live with that government.

Elsewhere, political and economic woes are accelerating. Economically hard-pressed Bolivia faces internal turbulence. Argentina, with inflation close to 600 percent, has trouble meeting its large foreign-debt obligations.

Mexico and Brazil, also with large foreign debts, find their interest payments increasing with rising US interest rates. And so on.

What should be the US approach toward the Southern Hemisphere? Three elements regarding Central America in particular, it would seem to us, are essential:

* In the long run, stepped-up economic assistance, as called for by the Kissinger Commission, is crucial. The commission called for $8 billion. Too much? Possibly not, compared with the prospect of domestic social resistance in the US that could be prompted by a larger US military presence in the area.

* The US must support all reasonable efforts to accommodate dissidents. In El Salvador, that would mean seeking a larger political framework that includes the rebels. Regarding Nicaragua, it would mean the US should give up efforts to topple the Sandinistas.

* Finally, while stressing both financial and military solutions, the US must remain firm in opposing foreign-financed subversion of duly elected governments. That means continuing US military aid to Central America - conditioned on improvement in human rights policies by the local governments.

There are no ''easy answers'' regarding Central America. Politically, both President Reagan and Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale may have little to gain by prominently addressing the region at this time.

Still, political campaigns tend to set the tone and direction of new administrations and sessions of Congress. It will be in the next few months that the basis for a US consensus toward Latin America could be drawn.

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