President Ra'ul Alfons'in of Argentina is visiting the United States this week with the intention of improving his country's image. Fifteen months after his civilian government took over power from a military junta, Mr. Alfons'in appears to need reassurance. The honeymoon period that followed his swearing-in ended months ago and his administration is besieged with economic and political problems of no easy solution.
Inflation has doubled over the past year to a record annual 796 percent -- second-highest in the world. Negotiations with international and US banks over terms to pay back its $45 billion foreign debt have been rocky. And the domestic political situation is characterized by mounting social unrest and renewed rumblings in the military.
Alfons'in wants to convince the Reagan administration this week that Argentina's nascent democracy deserves all the political and financial support the US can offer.
But Argentina is widely regarded as the ``bad boy'' among Latin American debtor nations for failing to do as much as the other debtors to bring its economy into line. Under the circumstances, he is likely to find the US unwilling to distribute huge amounts of new aid and the US business sector leery of any major new investments in Argentina.
The mounting political and economic problems seem to indicate that Argentina's civilian government remains very fragile. Farmers have been rallying against pricing policies, and there is a strong possibility that the nation's powerful trade unions will go on strike next week.
A public trends research group here recently suggested that President Alfons'in's personal popularity may have peaked last December and that it is going downhill.
``The question everyone here is beginning to ask themselves is: How long will Alfons'in's personal popularity last in the midst of seemingly insoluble problems?'' the research group says.
Tensions provoked by attempts to impose economic austerity in Argentina were highlighted in the abrupt sacking last month of the country's senior economic team, led by Finance Minister Bernardo Grinspun.
The Cabinet crisis could not have come at a worse time in terms of negotiations on the debt.
Alfons'in is expected to go out of his way tomorrow to stress that Argentina has no intention of breaking commitments to the International Monetary Fund and the banking community at large in meetings with IMF and US Federal Reserve officials.
Most analsyts say Argentina's economic situation may get worse before it gets better.
``The new economy minister, Juan Sour- rouille, will find it as difficult -- if not as impossible -- as his predecessor to reconcile domestic politics, focused on the national mid-term elections scheduled for November, with the demands of the banks,'' says one senior consultant.
A massive rally by thousands of Argentine farmers last week in protest against pricing policies coincided with a breakdown in talks between the government and trade unions aimed at securing agreement on an incomes policy.
With some real salaries falling below levels existing under the previous military regime, Alfons'in's government is bracing itself for renewed union strike action and a tug of war between the industrial and agrarian sectors over who should get the largest share of an increasingly restrictive federal budget.
Relations with the military appear to be deteriorating. A sweeping purge of the military's high command has not succeeded in defusing opposition to defense cuts and the government's human-rights policy.
As they brace thenselves for next month's trial of former junta members, most military officers are sticking to a conviction that the ``disappearance'' of more than 8,000 Argentines after a 1976 coup was necessary to prevent Argentina from sinking into revolution.
But Alfons'in's strong stand on human rights is one of his strongest cards in arguing for greater understanding from the international community.
Also in his favor has been his generally nonbelligerent attitude in foreign affairs. He has secured domestic support for a peace treaty with Chile over the Beagle Islands and has reaffirmed his intention of resolving the Falklands dispute by diplomatic, rather than military, means.