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Benefit of the doubt

Cannot President Reagan and President Castro say a civil word about Central America without being accused of grandstanding? It is time for both leaders to be given the ''benefit of the doubt'' that Mr. Reagan was prepared to give Mr. Castro when he recently revived a Cuban proposal for ending the flow of foreign arms and advisers to the turbulent region.

At a minimum, conciliatory statements from all quarters should be preferred to inflammatory ones - and considered with as much seriousness as the more bellicose rhetoric that keeps intruding.

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To be sure, when some voices cried ''grandstanding'' last week, they could cite the reported increase of Cubans in Nicaragua and the US military maneuvers nearby as contradictions of conciliatory words. But it cannot be ruled out that these developments could be the concluding phases of Cuban and US buildup in the region rather than stages to higher and higher plateaus. And such a hopeful outcome could be fostered by seizing on the peace talk and making it more and more inviting for the leaders to stick to it.

Certainly the US House of Representatives reads the US public as wanting its government's stand against communism not to be undercut by counterproductive military adventures. From past US experience the House evidently saw the covert funding of armed action against the Nicaraguan government as counterproductive. Its vote against such funding was a signal the administration has not ignored, whatever may happen when the measure gets to the Senate.

The Reagan administration may have been nudged toward its new conciliatory tone and efforts by its own reading of the public mood. A foreign relations official with experience under more than one administration has put it this way: The Reagan White House began by thinking it could sell its Central American policies by speaking to public concerns about the Soviet menace; now it judges that a different approach may be more effective.

A case in point is the administration's attitude toward the so-called Contadora group of Latin American nations seeking a Central American settlement. The Contadora stress on conciliation rather than conflict has been at least an implicit criticism of US stress on military security. Now Mr. Reagan has lent his support to the Contadora effort. He has been at pains to note that US economic aid substantially exceeds military aid. He specifically wrote to the Contadora group that the conflict in Central America must be removed from the context of an East-West confrontation (a context in which his own administration had firmly placed it in the days of Secretary Haig).

Now also the Nicaraguan government moves toward greater negotiating flexibility. A Salvadorean rebel leader meets for the first time with Mr. Reagan's emissary.

Is everybody grandstanding? Even if they are doing it to please the public, it must mean that they see the public wants peace. The public can reciprocate by applauding each hint of peaceful progress.

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