CLAREMONT, CALIF. — A COUP attempt in Panama. Drug wars in Colombia. The burning of the Amazon. Now and then, the news forces Americans to look south. Puzzled by what they see in Latin America, they can't quite convince themselves that Latin American issues really matter. So the gaze swings back to Europe and, increasingly, Asia. And the sea of population below the Mexican border, which will be twice that of the United States by the year 2000, sinks back into obscurity. Mexican novelist-diplomat Carlos Fuentes, speaking of the region he prefers to call ``Ibero-America'' rather than Latin America, puts its simply.
``All too often,'' he told a group of students and faculty here at the Claremont Graduate School earlier this month, ``our countries are invisible to the rest of the world'' - except, he noted, when earthquakes, revolutions, drugs, or debt are involved.
Professor Fuentes, whose best-selling novel, ``The Old Gringo,'' has been made into an American movie, is out to change that. His method includes no high-profile promotional campaign, no new political movement, no marketplace assault on America's journalistic tastes. He's doing it the way literature always does: by providing a new way of looking.
``Our nations must be understood,'' he insists, ``as nations with a past.''
The Ibero-American past, much longer than that of the US, is also crucially different in one respect. ``Ibero-America had a Middle Ages,'' he told his California audience, ``and you did not.''
Ibero-America, he explains, was born out of conflicting political visions that far antedated the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. It sprang from the Utopia of Sir Thomas More and the pragmatism of Niccolo Machiavelli, overlaid with the ironic detachment of Erasmus. Nurtured in ``the political school of St. Thomas Aquinas,'' he says, the region was brought up to believe that the unity of a nation was better than a plurality of views, and that one man's stable rule was preferable to democracy's turbulence.
Little wonder that the thing Yankees most cherish - a civil society with government by the consent of the governed - is only now putting down tentative roots south of the border. Unlike the US, where government depends on the will of the private sector, ``the private sector is a creation of the public sector throughout Ibero-America,'' Fuentes notes.
That helps explain one of the region's most pressing problems: the level of external debt. Every child born in Ibero-America between now and the year 2000, Fuentes says, ``will be born owing $1,000 to a foreign bank.''
That burden of debt is the result of an economic development model that, in Fuentes's view, is both historically explainable and gravely flawed. It was ``development from above,'' he says, reflecting government by elites. And it reflected a desire in the region to ``imitate prestigious models'' such as modern Europe or the United States, rather than draw on the centuries-old cultures of the region.
Not surprisingly, the money developed nations poured in did not help build strong civil societies. Instead, it helped maintain strong national states. Today those states are increasingly anachronistic. History, in Fuentes's hands, explains how they came to exist. It also explains, he says, how they cannot survive.
We are accustomed to watching the trend toward democracy sweep across Eastern Europe, assert itself in Africa, and struggle for a place in China. Fuentes reminds us that we can watch the same trend in a region that may have far greater consequences for the 21st century than have been recognized in the last five centuries.