Buenos Aires, Caracas, and Rio de Janeiro — ''Irreparable harm done United States relations
with Latin America by its support of Britain''
That headline in Clarin, a mass-circulation tabloid in Buenos Aires, sums up conventional wisdom on the effect of US support of Britain in the recent Falklands conflict.
But in fact there is suprisingly little rancor toward the US in the aftermath of the war, this correspondent found in a wide-ranging survey of Latin American governments.
There are several reasons for this relative absence of anger.
For one thing, most Latin American countries now appear to be somewhat embarrassed by supporting Argentina - despite their strong criticism of the US during the war.
''We were forced into this position (of support for Argentina) because Argentina is a sister republic, not because we really believed in Argentine actions,'' wrote an editorial writer in Prensa Libre, a Guatemala City daily.
Rapport between Argentina and its neighbors has never been particularly strong. Argentina views itself as more European than Latin, and this social distance is another reason why Latin American nations are not as angry with the US as they might have been if another Latin country had been involved in such a conflict. Not one Latin nation, besides Argentina, broke relations with the US - or even with London - during the conflict.
To be sure, Latin Americans would have preferred a more neutral US stance in the British-Argentine war. But as one of the most influential Western Hemisphere diplomats in Washington observes, ''The United States does a lot of things that do not set well with us, and yet our relations change little as a result.''
A fundamental reason for absence of anger is the perception in each Latin American nation of the essential nature of its relations with the US. In most countries - with the exception of Cuba, which led hemisphere cheering for Argentina - bilateral ties with Washington are what count.
Even Venezuela and Peru - Argentina's most solid backers in the war - now are scrambling to repair ties with Washington. And they are using the goodwill they won from Argentina to urge early Argentine return to democracy.
Venezuela, Peru, Panama, and Guatemala offered support for Argentina and criticized the US during the Falklands war. But special circumstances were involved:
Venezuela claims two-thirds of neighboring Guyana, a former British colony; Peru has a longstanding border dispute with Chile, a nation with that has another border dispute with Argentina; Guatemala claims Belize; and Panama has a love-hate relationship with the US over the Panama Canal. Therefore they rose to Argentina's defense in its war over the the Falklands.
But it appears Washington's relations with others in the hemisphere have not been damaged permanently. And it seems that even in the short run, US ties with Latin America have suffered relatively little. Only with Argentina do relations appear to have been seriously damaged - and there, the damage may be only short-lived.
Here is a rundown on attitudes in four of Latin America's most influential nations:
* Argentina: ''Washington deceived us,'' complained former Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez at the height of the war. ''How can a great democracy like the United States support an evil government in London when right is on our side?''
Many Argentines echo Mr. Costa Mendez's view even now.
Despite its anger at the US, Argentina has yet to pull its military advisers out of Central America, where it was supporting US efforts to beef up beleaguered government forces in El Salvador.
Argentina, nevertheless, is deeply embittered about the US stand on the Falklands conflict. Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri told colleagues before he was ousted, ''The US must be punished for its intrasigence.''
Lt. Gen. Cristino Nicolaides, who took over as Army commander in chief with General Galtieri's ouster, is less belligerent in his view. But he is known to feel that the US was ''totally wrong'' in backing Britain. One colonel spoke for many Argentine military men when he said Washington ''has a lot of atoning to do before we can have good relations.''
This week, the Reagan administration lifted a variety of economic sanctions imposed on Argentina April 30 when Washington announced its support of Britain. The sanctions included Export-Import Bank credits, insurance, and Commodity Credit Corporation guarantees. But the White House, announcing the end of economic sanctions, made no mention of restoring military aid suspended five years ago by Carter.
US-Argentine ties in recent years have been none too good. Argentina's human-rights record was sharply criticized by the Carter White House. And it was only two years ago that the Carter administration was expressing official anger at Argentina for selling its grain to the Soviet Union in the wake of the US-imposed boycott on sales in response to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
Substantial improvement in US-Argentine relations is likely to be a long time in coming.
* Brazil: The scene - a Copacabana Beach bar in Rio de Janeiro.
The time - early afternoon June 14 during the World Soccer Cup match in Spain between Brazil and Soviet Union.
A television monitor brought the match play to sports enthusiasts in the room. As interest in the game heightened, an announcer at the Rio de Janeiro television station suddenly broke into game commentary to report Argentina's loss of Port Stanley.
There was an instant cheer from the crowd that for several minutes drown out the words of the soccer match announcer. It was almost as boisterous as the cheer at the end of the game, which Brazil won 2-1.
In a way, that scene in the Copacabana epitomizes Brazilian views on the Falklands conflict. Those views are evident in the way Brazilians refer to the islands. They seldom call them the Malvinas, as do the Argentines. They use the British name, the Falklands.
This Brazilian attitude mirrors the traditional enmity between Brazil and Argentina.
Brazilian relations with the US have not been as firm in recent years as Washington might want, perhaps reflecting Brazil's growing political and economic importance in Latin America, which makes it something of a rival of the US. But with Ronald Reagan in the White House, relations have been improving. Brazilian President Jono Baptista de Oliveira Figuereido visited the US at the height of the Falklands crisis.
* Venezuela: After Britain retook the Falklands, Venezuelan President Luis Herrera Campins went out of his way to say that his support of Argentina in the conflict is not contingent on ''the success or failure'' of Argentine arms. He added that ''sooner or later'' the islands will be Argentine.
But Venezuela did little to back up the talk.
''We didn't have much to give, only our moral support,'' says a leading Venezuelan diplomat. ''We know, however, that our verbal support meant a lot to Argentina,'' It didn't help win the war, but it showed the Argentines that they were not alone,'' says a leading Venezuelan diplomat.
Other Venezuelans, however, suggested that the real reasons for support lay with Venezuela's claim to chunks of Guyana. One newspaper editor said: ''Of course, we supported Argentina. We may need Argentina's support in the years ahead as our dispute with Guyana intensifies, as it is bound to do.''
All this, however, has not slowed US-Venezuelan economic and business ties. Viasa, the state-owned airline, added an extra Caracas-US flight in June, and a preliminary trade figures for the second quarter of 1982 show a 7 percent increase with estimates for the rest of 1982 in the same framework.
* Mexico: Mexico has tried to stay aloof from the Falklands conflict. In some measure, Mexicans see no victors in the conflict - and they tend to regard themselves as losers because the crisis was a setback for the principles of peaceful negotiations that are so much a part of Mexican foreign policy.
But Mexico supports eventual Argentine control of the Falklands.
''They were fools to invade the islands,'' said a Mexican Foreign Ministry official.
''They were wrong on principle to do so and it also shows they do not know how to read the consequences of such action. They never expected the British to react as they did.''
An official close to President-elect Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, added: ''It was well that the British took on the Argentines and taught them a lesson. A principle was involved. The Argentines need to learn. One only hopes they are teachable.''
Some of Mexico's attitudes on Argentina are the result of traditional disagreements between the two countries. Mexicans have long felt that there is a certain Argentine disdain for Mexico and Mexicans. Whether true or not, the perception has frequently has frequently led to Mexican anger at Argentina.