Atlanta — One might expect many of this nation's Hispanics--the second largest minority in the US--to identify with Argentina in the current Falklands war. And many do.
But many others say the United States should adopt a neutral position in the conflict.
Interviews with Hispanic leaders in New York, Florida, Texas, and California indicate that strong Hispanic support for a neutral US stance is not based solely on these US citizens' ancestral and cultural ties to Latin America. Many of those contacted were critical of Argentina's human rights record and expressed fear that the US backing of Britain could undermine US policy in Latin America.
These leaders were looking forward to better relations with Latin America through President Reagan's Caribbean basin development plan announced earlier this year. But US abandonment of neutrality ''totally destroyed'' any chance of improved ties that might have come out of the plan, says Manuel Bustelo, publisher of New York's El Diario-La Prensa, the Spanish language newspaper with the largest US circulation.
Tony Bonilla, national president of the Texas-based League of United Latin American Citizens, criticizes Argentine aggression in seizing the islands. But, he says, the US decision to side with Britain ''was a mistake.'' Mr. Bonilla, reflecting a widespread view among US Hispanic leaders, says the US should have stayed neutral.
Another Mexican-American, David Lizarraga, president of The East Los Angeles Community Union, personally supports President Reagan's support of Britain. But he says he is concerned about its effect on US-Latin relations.
In Miami, Cuban-American architect Willy Bermello, a Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives, calls the war in the Falklands ''senseless--like two kids squabbling over something not worth fighting for.'' He says the US, in its tilt toward Britain, runs the risk of alienating its Hispanic citizens.
''I'd say the Hispanics I've spoken with have an emotional tie to Argentina, '' says Pedro Garza, the Mexican-American national director of SER (Jobs for Progress), based in Dallas. ''We side with Argentina in our hearts.''
But, he adds, ''We (Hispanics) are not tilting toward Argentina. We're simply saying Argentina and Latin America are just as important as Britain and Europe to the US.''
Nevertheless, outward Hispanic criticism of the US stance has been mild.
Hispanics ''are American citizens'' and would freely speak out in favor of Argentina except for their objection to its human rights record, says Bustelo, who until March was chairman of the Forum of National Hispanic Organizations.
Another reason for the conspicuous lack of comment on the conflict by US Hispanics is that until recently, most Hispanic organizations have focused solely on domestic issues, Bustelo notes.
But some Hispanics are not speaking out for fear of being branded ''unpatriotic,'' says Garza. Others, including Antonio Varona, a Cuban-American exile leader in Miami, say the Falklands issue is not a hot topic among Hispanics he knows.
Hispanic opinions in the US--whether highly vocal or not--are of growing political importance. The US Census Bureau estimates there are some 13 to 14 million Hispanics in the US, and their numbers are rising steadily. In addition, there are an estimated 1.5 to 5 million illegal aliens in the US, but these persons are, of course, ineligible to vote.