ARGENTINA'S continuing economic trauma and Chile's escalating political conflict have all but overshadowed the settling of their century-old dispute over the Beagle Channel, at the tip of South America. Yet the Argentine-Chilean agreement to end the dispute, which brought the two nations close to war in 1978 , is one of the most positive developments in Latin America this year. The agreement is also proof that longstanding problems between countries can be resolved.
Under terms of the treaty, which was worked out with Vatican mediation, three disputed islands at the Atlantic mouth of the Beagle Channel - Lennox, Picton, and Nueva - go to Chile, which has had de facto control of them for decades. But Chile agrees to limit its maritime rights in the area and in the Atlantic Ocean, which Argentina wanted. This Solomon-like agreement may not sit well with ardent nationalists in two nations. But the governments of Argentine President Raul Alfonsin and Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte support the accord and are pushing for quick ratification.
In a nonbinding referendum on the agreement, Argentines recently approved it by a margin of 77 percent to 21 percent. The next step is formal ratification of the treaty by the Argentine Congress - and the Chilean military junta. Both are expected to do so soon. About the only snag in the process is a possible constitutional challenge in Chile over the ratification process. Some Chileans argue that only a legislative ratification of the treaty would be valid.
Since 1973, however, when Chile's military seized power, the country has not had a legislature and treaties have regularly been ratified by the junta. Despite the fervor with which some Chileans argue this is a faulty constitutional process, it is likely that the courts, if put to a test, would rule that the junta does indeed have ratification powers.
This possible snag aside, it looks as if the treaty will become operative early next year. Both nations, meanwhile, deserve hearty commendation for putting an end to a nasty dispute, which stirred passions for decades. The Argentine and Chilean negotiators, including the respective foreign ministers, Dante Caputo and Jaime del Valle, also deserve accolades.