Buenos Aires — The sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano, with an apparent heavy loss of life, is clearly a major naval setback for Argentina in its South Atlantic conflict with Britain--but it could prove to be a diplomatic trump card as well.
Argentine foreign policy, which was aggressive and determined in the conflict's early days, has switched focus. Now it seeks to curry international sympathy for Argentina as the victim of British aggression.
The Foreign Ministry here has suggested to the military junta, headed by Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, that it play the role of victim to the hilt, particularly to win hemisphere support for Argentina.
It is understood that Argentine embassies throughout Latin America have kept foreign ministries apprised of the General Belgrano sinking and the difficult rescue operation, which so far has recovered only about 500 of the 1,042-member crew.
As it begins to play the victim role, some of the attention is directed at the United States. The Argentines are clearly miffed over Washington's weekend decision to side openly with Britain in the conflict, which erupted April 2 as Argentina unilaterally seized the Falkland Islands.
Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez, in what many see as a calculated effort to blacken Washington's image in the hemisphere, said this week that ''the inter-American system is shattered'' and that the blame must rest with the US for siding with ''the foreign aggressor.'' The US, he added, has not listened to the wishes of the hemisphere. The result is that Latin American solidarity is growing as the inter-American system that includes the US loses effectiveness.
There can be no mistaking the deterioriation in Argentine-US ties. The US Embassy is understood to have burned all of its classified documents in preparation for any eventuality--and is continuing the practice on a daily basis. Some US dependents have left the country.
The State Department said May 4 it was authorizing a number of nonessential personnel and dependents of US diplomats in Buenos Aires to leave Argentina temporarily because of the crisis.
These developments come as the Argentine press takes an increasingly strident anti-US tone.
Washington's Latin American policies are bound to face some difficult days ahead in the wake of this South Atlantic crisis. For instance, the US desire for greater hemisphere support of its Central American policy--aimed at defeating the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, turning off guerrilla groups in Guatemala , and isolating Nicaragua's leftist-leaning leadership--faces an uncertain future.
The US-approved Argentine military adviser role in both El Salvador and Honduras may be in jeopardy. Argentina may already have pulled out its advisers from Central America as military needs here grow. That is not certain. But it is unlikely that Argentina would expand its role in Central America in the light of its escalating conflict with Britain.
Meanwhile Argentina notes many expressions of hemisphere solidarity: Peru and Venezuela cutting off air and maritime links with Britain, calls in Panama for a break in relations with Britain, Brazil's sale of patrol planes to Argentina, and continuing Cuban support.
Newspapers here are full of these and other developments that would make it appear that almost no nation--not only in the Americas but also in the world--is going along with US support of Britain in the Falklands dispute.
There is no doubt that Argentina is on the receiving end of more hemisphere support as the conflict heats. But the conflict catches Latin Americans in a dilemma. They have a natural tendency to side with a Latin American nation in conflict with the US, but Argentina has seldom enjoyed a favorable reception among its Latin neighbors.
Moreover, Argentina's poor human-rights record during the past decade--at least 6,000 persons have been killed by the military--has been severely criticized by other Latin American governments. And Argentina's unilateral grab of the Falklands did not set well with many hemisphere governments.
Many Latin American governments also want to maintain good relations with Washington, and this further tempers their support for Argentina. With their economies in deep trouble, many of them see the links with Washington, and trade ties, as particularly important.
But as the Argentine government pushes the theme of being a victim--and the sinking of the General Belgrano helps immensely in this effort--a swelling of verbal, and perhaps concrete, support from Latin America can be expected, no matter how reluctant it may be.
''It is only a question of time,'' said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, ''before this support becomes more fully evident.''
Events in the South Atlantic, however, are moving fast. In recent days, the Argentine Navy has lost not only the General Belgrano, but also loss of or damage to two patrol boats, one submarine, and possibly another sub. And the British May 4 launched a new aerial attack on Argentine military installations near the Falklands capital of Port Stanley. This could be preparatory to a full-scale British landing on the islands.
Meanwhile, as the fighting escalates, Argentina is making much of the Monroe Doctrine. It suggests that the US, in supporting Britain's efforts to reclaim the Falklands, has gone against this early 19th-century proclamation aimed at keeping Europe out of the Americas.
There is some irony in the Argentine use of the doctrine. When issued in 1823 , it was almost universally rejected by Latin American nations, Argentina included, because it was seen as an effort by the US ''to put its stamp of control'' on Latin America, as an Argentine historian wrote in the 1850s.