TWO years ago, Congress and the media were wringing their hands over a "catastrophic" setback to prospects for democracy and peace in El Salvador. The cause of their gloom was the election of Alfredo Cristiani, the presidential nominee of the National Republic Alliance (ARENA) - a party associated in the minds of many with right-wing death squads and wealthy landowners.Washington was filled with dire predictions: Proposed land reforms would be canceled; the military would be unleashed to conduct a dirty war against leftists guerrillas; wanton killing of innocent peasants would escalate. These predictions were all wrong. I was asked by President Bush to go to El Salvador as head of the United States delegation to President Cristiani's inauguration June 1, 1989. In his inaugural address, he pledged to solidify El Salvador's democracy, enhance land reform, bring about an economic turnaround through free enterprise, and seek peace through direct negotiations with the leftist FMLN guerrillas. We were not certain he could deliver on such promises in a country divided by a decade of civil war. Two years later, he has succeeded to a degree I did not think possible. Look at the economy. By cutting state intervention in order to free private initiative, agricultural production and exports reversed their slide to bring about the highest overall economic growth since 1979. Cristiani has set the stage to improve prospects for the most impoverished Salvadorans. Look at Salvadoran democracy. For the March 10 National Assembly elections, Cristiani increased the number of Assembly seats from 60 to 84, opening the way for leftist parties regarded as the political wing of the FMLN to win nine seats with 15 percent of the total vote. This should effectively take away the argument of hardline guerrilla leaders that the democratic route to reform is closed to them. Cristiani also committed his government to the peace process by asking the United Nations to mediate peace talks. April negotiations with the FMLN laid the constitutional foundation for a hoped-for truce. In response to FMLN demands, the constitution is being reformed to place the military firmly under civilian control, set up a civilian police force, strengthen the independence of the judiciary, and establish a special prosecutor for crimes against human rights. The two sides are meeting with the UN mediator in Venezuala to hammer out a cease-fire agreement. We'll soon learn whether the FMLN has been negotiating sincerely or merely has been engaging in another tactic to impose a Marxist-style dictatorship on El Salvador. How could a man from the dreaded ARENA bring us to such a promising juncture in El Salvador? Cristiani, it turns out, was precisely the man for the job. His roots in the conservative right gave him the credentials to persuade the powerful forces resisting reforms that change was inevitable and should not be feared. This is most evident in the cause of human rights. Contrast the total lack of official action after Archbishop Oscar A. Romero was assassinated 10 years ago with what happened after the barbarous murder of six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers 18 months ago. Cristiani called in experts from abroad to conduct an impartial and highly professional investigation, which led to the arrest of four army officers and five enlisted men for the crime. Their trial is to begin soon. In light of such progress, this is no time for Congress to turn its back on El Salvador by showing a lack of support for Cristiani's leadership. Recently, the Bush administration was wise to begin allocating previously withheld military assistance to El Salvador for non-lethal material. We should likewise continue the kind of pressure for reforms that provide Cristiani with leverage on human rights. But we must be wary of leading the FMLN to conclude that our support of Salvadoran democracy is weakening, and thereby encourage the guerrillas to continue terrorism as an alternative to peace.