New York — Behind a facade of official solidarity, Latin America's feelings about the Falklands crisis are ambivalent.
Latin America is divided in three loosely knit groups on the Falklands dispute. Some Latin neighbors stand solidly behind Argentina; some prefer to remain aloof from the whole matter; some lean against Argentina, at least privately.
Reluctance to side with Latin America's second-largest country could end if the British Navy were to sink an Argentine vessel; Britain then would be seen as the aggressor and no longer the victim. Hesitation may also fade if Argentina invokes the Rio Treaty.
But there are many reasons why Argentina's neighbors did not immediately rally to its side in the Falklands crisis. Brazil and Chile, for example, are bound by a longstanding unwritten alliance to contain Argentine aggressiveness.
Recently, Chile has felt threatened by Argentine claims to sovereignty over the islands of Picton, Neuva, and Lennox in the Beagel Channel, which come under Chilean sovereignty. The channel islands have long been a sore point between the two nations, but reliable sources report that tensions have risen anew since Argentine military forces provoked military incidents in the area in recent months.
Brazil's relations with Argentina are somewhat better than Chile's. Buenos Aires and Brazilia have mended some of their fences, and the improved relations are strengthened by President Jono Baptista Figueiredo's personal friendship with Argentine President Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri.
Brazil has always supported Argentina's claim to the Falklands, but this does not mean Brazil is willing to support its traditional rival. Brazil so far has traveled the middle road, offering something to both nations. It sent a signal of solidarity to Argentina by sending its Navy into maneuvers along its southern coast. And it has reportedly offered to allow British ships to refuel at Brazilian ports, up to the point that war breaks out.
Brazil could incur serious economic losses from the crisis. Argentina is the largest single importer of Brazil's industrial goods. Europe's turning the financial screws on Argentina could sharply reduce Argentina's capability to import from Brazil, hurting Brazil's balance of trade. On the other hand, the European Community is Brazil's largest trading partner.
''Brazil cannot afford to cut its ties to Western Europe for the love of Argentina,'' says one Latin American diplomat.
Brazil fears a weakened, humiliated Argentina in a potential defeat at the hands of Britian, but it also fears an aggressive, boasting neighbor if Argentina were to win over Britain.
Venezuela has given Argentina vocal support. So has Peru, which has been linked to Argentina by security considerations similar to those linking Brazil and Chile.
Mexico nominally supports Argentina. But some of its highest officials are known to feel a deep political distaste for Argentina's junta and ''would shed no tears over its collapse,'' to quote from a reliable source.
Ironically, Cuba is perhaps the staunchest hemispheric backer of Argentina.
''The Cubans thumbed their noses at Argentina's right-wing ideology because the present crisis provides their Soviet ally with geopolitical opportunities,'' says one analyst.
The Andean countries - Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia - paid lip service to the Argentine cause when they said they would step up trade with Argentina.
Any decision by the Organization of American States to back Argentina could have disastrous consequences, according to some senior Latin American diplomats.
''It would mean the end of the Rio Treaty. The United States would not abide by it. It is doubtful that Latin American countries would actually give Argentina military support. The treaty would become a worthless document,'' says a Latin American official.
Another Latin American diplomat believes that a US tilt toward Great Britain would provoke a wave of anti-US feelings in Latin America.