Now that candidate Reagan has become President-elect Reagan his foreign policy tasks include two that are particularly close to home: * To correct the dangerous political conclusions that some Latin Americans seem to have drawn from his campaign;
* To foster a climate for meeting the perennial question of United States "neglect" of its southern neighbors.
Both matters are in the air as the Organization of American States (OAS) holds its tenth general assembly in Washington -- and as Argentinian dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winned Adolfo Perez Esquivel visits the US to defend human rights as "the voice of those who have no voice." A major topic on the OAS agenda is consideration of alleged widespread violations of human rights in Latin America, with a special lengthy report devoted to Argentina.
The time seems appropriate for Mr. Reagan to stress the concern for human rights and for consistency in US support of them that he expressed immediately after the election. This could offset the apparent gleeful expectation in Argentina and other repressive quarters that a Reagan administration will turn a blind eye to their excesses. It could prevent a feeding of the fears that the Reagan victory may encourage right-wing coups in Latin America. An extreme indication of possible right-wing exploitation of the victory came in El Salvador where two murder victims were found with signs on them saying, "With Ronald Reagan, the miscreants and guerrillas of Central America and El Salvador will be finished."
The President-elect could help to discourage such tragic misreadings by voicing in relation in Latin America the kind of things we have heard this week in relation to South Korea and, indeed, to his own United States. Some had felt the Reagan win might encourage the carrying out of South Korea's death sentence given dissident Kim Dae Jung on charges of sedition which the US had called "far-fetched." Now a senior Reagan aide has affirmed that "it would be an error" for the Seoul government to take the election results as meaning the US no longer opposes the execution. He said the execution would harm relations between the two countries.
At almost the same time Mr. Reagan himself was declaring he was "heart and soul" in favor of desegregation and other things done in the United States "under the name of civil rights." He spoke in the context of considering court-ordered school busing a failure of means toward a worthwhile end. He said there were better ways, and he now will have the opportunity and presumably the backing in Congress to identify and implement those better ways.
Similarly, in relation to Latin America, he has the opportunity to ensure that his proper reluctance to impose US means of achieving human rights on others is not confused with a willingness to promote US policies aiding the ability of others to violate human rights. His position on this is clear in relation to communist "adversary" nations like the Soviet Union. It should be no less clear in relation to other nations, friend or foe, of whatever political stripe.
A hopeful avenue to improving human rights in Latin America is the kind of economic progress of which Mr. Reagan is such an avid partisan. This brings us to the second task mentioned above: fostering a climate against the neglect of Latin America which every US president promises to redress but often tends to get diverted from.
Mr. Reagan will be going into a White House to which a presidential commission on the Caribbean has recently submitted a report calling for a "major commitment" to increasing US aid and throwing open US markets to Caribbean goods. There are similar needs elsewhere to the south. Latin American countries have begun to be able to supply manufactured products as well as raw materials. They need to be the beneficiaries of Republican free trade policies as well as the "close and cooperative relations" and the "understanding and assistance" pledged in the GOP platform.
Doubts about Mr. Reagan's views of Latin America have been raised by his opposition to the Panama Canal treaties, a giant step forward in reducing the US image as a "colonialist" power in Latin America. Now that the treaties are a fact, he can exercise on them what he appears to be willing to bestow on so many domestic programs he doesn't exactly favor -- a determination to make things work.
This is a healthy attitude for responding both to the diverse national circumstances that prevent sweeping judgments on human rights in Latin America -- and to the disparity in economic conditions that requires discernin policies on trade and aid.