Washington — The Reagan administration has provoked sharp criticism from congressional and other quarters because of its removal of Peter Bell as director of the Inter-American Foundation.
These critics view Bell's removal as a blatant attempt to politicize the foundation - a United States government-funded agency that underwrites grass-roots development projects in Latin America, whose nonpartisan nature has remained intact since its founding under the Nixon administration.
Langhorne Motley, US assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, the highest-ranking Reagan appointee on the foundation's seven-person board of directors, has come in for special criticism because of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Bell's removal at a board meeting on Dec. 5.
Rep. Michael Barnes (D) of Maryland, head of the House Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, charged that ''Motley has broken his personal commitment to me,'' because Bell was removed before a report evaluating the foundation's performance was issued. Motley had assured both Barnes and House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Rep. Dante Fascell (D) of Florida that no moves would be made against Bell before the report was issued in January.
Congressional and foundation sources feel that Motley and the other Reagan appointees on the board decided to move early when it became apparent that the evaluation report would be favorable to Bell. Barnes stated that he and Mr. Fascell would hold congressional hearings on Bell's removal next month.
The foundation was created in 1969 at the initiative of Representative Fascell and Bradford Morse, now director of the United Nations Development Program. It was designed to fund small projects at a grass-roots level that would directly benefit the poorest groups in Latin America.
Its founders hoped that a small, independent agency, funded by Congress but separate from the government, would bypass some of the red tape and politicization that plagued many programs run by official US assistance organizations like the Agency for International Development (AID). In order to meet these goals, the foundation, according to its original congressional mandate, was designed to be removed from partisan politics or foreign-policy considerations.
''All administrations except the current one have agreed with the necessity of protecting the foundation's integrity by maintaining a nonpolitical board and staff,'' Representative Barnes says. This view is widely shared here.
Barnes says: ''The Reagan administration has been after the Inter-American Foundation since Jan. 20, 1981. The first step in the attack was a hatchet job by the Heritage Foundation. The second step was to stack the foundation's board with right-wingers in order to remove the foundation's internationally respected president, Peter Bell. The third step, Bell's ouster, was engineered (Dec. 5). The next step will presumably be an attempt to appoint a new president who will bend the foundation to the administration's ideology.''
Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the Bell dismissal.
Five of the seven-member board are Reagan administration appointees. One of these, Cuban-born Victor Blanco, was made chairman of the board one year ago. Some observers feel Blanco has made no secret of his desire to remove Bell and other key officers and turn the institution into what Barnes calls a ''tool of the ideological right.''
Some connected with the foundation worry that the new tone of the foundation may be indicated by a remark Motley made at the Dec. 5 board meeting. The remark concerns INCAE, a graduate business school located in Nicaragua that is linked to the Harvard Business School and that educates students from throughout Central America. Last September, the foundation's decided to aid INCAE.
But some observers say that in Nicaragua's current radicalized environment, INCAE's has had to make some token concessions to the country's Sandinista rulers. One of these was a reception marking the birthday of Carlos Fonseca, the slain leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
At the Inter-American Foundation's meeting, Motley reportedly stated that this reception for Foseca should be seen as a signal of the direction in which the school was going and that the board might want to reconsider before providing the school with any further support.