IN THE 1980s while Central America was on fire, it was regularly said that when the revolution was over, the region could turn to its towering need for growth and development and the United States would be right there helping. In the 1990s, except in El Salvador, most of the fire is out, but when the region looks for American aid it finds Washington distracted by new causes (Eastern Europe) and other budget priorities. The United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars to finance resistance to Communist military forces in Central America. Now it is cutting back its regional expenditures, offering instead of greater development aid its readiness to carry Central America's case to remote Europe and Japan.

In old political terms, this makes some sense: the whole dimension of East-West conflict that drove the heavy American intervention is easing; Cuba's revolutionary thrust is troublesome but anachronistic, fated to fade. In the newer regional way, however, it makes little sense for the United States to revert to its traditional between-crises detachment from Central America. Misery on the American doorstep keeps the neighborhood anxious and unstable, denies the United States the economic and political advantages of peaceful cooperation, and churns continuing refugee flows. The encouragement of democracy remains the best guarantee that the costly, relative success Washington has had in reducing externally supported violence will produce benefits for the people. In a region where modern political institutions are still come-and-go things, the encouragement of democracy is meaningless without a baseline of development and growth.

For this growth to happen, peace is vital. Calling in other aid donors has its value, but American leadership remains essential. Great new bundles of money are not so important as steady flows tied in with sensible terms -- approved by the international banks -- involving debt, trade and technology as well as aid, plus, of course, free-market reforms. A framework must be sought that gives the requisite confidence to would-be donors and investors while satisfying sensitive Latins' need to be seen steering their own affairs. In Guatemala, where Secretary of State Baker conferred with the five Central American presidents on this agenda this week, not all the pieces were put in place, but a start was made and it deserves to be followed up diligently and for the number of years it takes.