WHATEVER happened to Central America? Not long ago it was hard for anyone in the United States to escape hearing about the troubled region. Central America and its problems are still there, of course: Aspects of the situation have eased, yet great peril remains.
But in the US the rhetoric has been toned down on all sides. At the moment the Reagan administration is clearly on top, with Congress rather placidly disposed to give it most of what is sought in Central American aid. The administration is about to begin spending the $27 million in nonmilitary aid Congress approved two months ago for the ``contras''; soon it is expected to tell how much money it wants this coming fiscal year for military aid to Central America, and to ask that it be appropriated.
In addition, the administration this week has made clear that it is seeking an additional $54 million to aid five Central American nations to combat terrorism; the largest amount -- $22 million -- would be for El Salvador.
If today's political climate continues, the administration can be expected to get about $54 million. Incidents of urban terrorism by the left have increased in El Salvador in recent months, most recently the tragic kidnapping of a daughter of President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte. Doubtless the Duarte government, and its neighbors, do require additional funds for training and equipment.
In view of past atrocities by government security forces against innocent civilians, however, Congress ought to insist that no future funds be given to organizations headed by individuals involved in human rights abuses. Congress further should consider the recommendation of US Rep. George Miller, made yesterday in these pages, that such assistance should be conditional ``on the establishment of a functioning judicial system.'' There should be no backsliding on the diminution of recent months in the num ber of human rights violations by the right.
What Congress does in the future about administration requests for Central American aid is likely to be determined by two factors. One is the performance in office of El Salvador's Mr. Duarte; so long as he retains the Congressional confidence he now has, that body can be expected to approve aid to Central America without major change, inasmuch as El Salvador receives so much of the funding. Unless, that is, the second factor intervenes: news developments unfavorable to the Reagan administration's pos itions. For instance, Congress, like segments of the American public, would be particularly sensitive to any reports of major atrocities by forces backed by the United States, such as have occurred in the past.
By the same token, what finally led the House of Representatives to approve the last $27 million in contra aid was the trip of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra to Moscow: Similarly obvious evidence of linkage between the Soviet Union and the Sandinistas, or leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, would also bring about congressional support for the administration.