United Nations, N.Y. — Latin America, long a dormant volcano at the United Nations, has erupted and become a central feature on this world stage. Increasing East-West tensions, a worsening Latin economic situation, and old unsettled quarrels between Anglo-Saxons and the Hispanics in this hemisphere are considered to be at the root of Latin America's sudden activism at the UN.
The fact that three Latin Americans play leading roles at the UN is coincidental, but at the same time perhaps symbolic.
Javier Perez de Cueller, from Peru, is UN secretary-general.
Jorge Illueca, from Panama, is president of the General Assembly.
Porfirio Munoz Ledo from Mexico is chairman of the ''77'' (the group of developing nations that now numbers 120).
The Falklands crisis. Central America. The threat of armed conflict between Venezuela and Guyana. Each of these have been brought to the General Assembly, the Security Council, and to the personal attention of the UN Secretary-General.
The two most strident indictments against US economic policies in the last two years came not from Cuba nor from Nicaragua, but from the presidents of Brazil and Colombia, both staunch anticommunists.
At the Security Council, Latin American countries such as Mexico, Panama, Guyana, and Nicaragua have voted independently when not against the US. In earlier days, Latin American votes at the Security Council were considered to follow the American lead automatically.
Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, the UN staged many Asian and African dramas. Pakistan's confrontation with India, the painful birth of Bangladesh, the labors of decolonization (French, Portuguese, Belgian, British) in Africa took up much of the UN's time. Under the leadership of Algeria, Tanzania, and Nigeria, the African group was particularly active in taking the West to task. In the 1950s, India, Egypt, and Indonesia sharply criticized the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
Latin America, a relatively cohesive voting bloc at the United Nations, nevertheless had its own problems (Chile in conflict with Argentina over the Beagle Chanal, Bolivia claiming a province taken by Chile, frictions between Ecuador and Peru, disputes between Argentina and Chile over their border and between Venezuela and Colombia over their common border). But until recently Latin America seemed content to address its problems in regional forms such as the Organization of American States (often referred to in Latin America as the ''US Ministry of Colonies'') with Uncle Sam playing the mediator behind the scenes.
The first - and perhaps the strongest - explosion of Latin anger at the Security Council came in 1961 when the US mounted the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.
The fall of Nicaraguan strong man Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the coming to power of the Sandinistas in 1979 brought the US once more into conflict with a Latin American country. East-West tensions and a tendency of the Reagan administration to view local and regional conflicts through a global East-West looking glass, turned Central American left-versus-right confrontations into world-shaking events and eventually involved the UN.
Four Latin American countries (Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela) tried to mediate among the Central American camps. The Security Council got involved. The UN Secretary-General was asked to keep an eye on the issue.
By the same token, Perez de Cueller tried to avoid an armed conflict between Argentina and Britain over the Falklands last year. His efforts were derailed in the end by a lack of flexibility on both sides. And Perez de Cueller was asked by Venezuela and Guyana to look into their dispute.
There is a common trend to these problems. The Falklands conflict and Venezuela's claims over part of Guyana are both an aftermath of Latin America's decolonization process and the old Anglo-Saxon vs. Hispanic confrontation in the region.
The fact that, when the chips were down, the US backed Britain against Argentina indicated that this old feud is not buried. It also handed a what may be a death blow to the Pan-American Treaty (1947) and to the concept of hemispheric solidarity against outsiders. In fact, the Falklands crisis may have marked the death of the Monroe Doctrine, says one Latin American diplomat.
High foreign debts among many Central American nations and high US interest rates have prompted some Latins ''to speak out confrontationally at the United States and to play a more dynamic role inside or at the edge of the nonaligned movement,'' says one UN official.
''Latin America's emergence at the UN is a sign of its weakness and of its divisions, not of its strength. But it also demonstrates that it is coming of age politically, and that the United States is no longer able to keep its backyard out of the limelight,'' says a key Latin diplomat.