MEXICO CITY — THE US intervention in Haiti may conjure up the kind of Yankee big-stick activism that Latin Americans are used to seeing - and condemning.
But this time, newspapers like Mexico City's daily Reforma were able to announce: ``US begins peaceful intervention in the island.'' And that twist seemed to make all the difference.
Official reaction in Latin America to this occupation has been cast in largely positive terms, with even a staunch, longtime opponent of US interventions like Mexico announcing its ``approval'' of Sunday night's agreement between the United States and Haiti's military rulers.
Many observers compare the Latin American response to a ``collective sigh of relief'': relief that a full-scale military invasion was avoided; that memories of past US invasions, which often aroused violent public outcries, were left dormant; and that relations with the US, at a time of advancing economic ties and enhanced hemispheric accord, did not face an inopportune rattling.
``There is a sense of alleviation among the same sectors of the population that opposed the invasion here in 1989,'' says Marco Gandasegui, executive secretary of the Center for Latin American Studies in Panama. ``For most intellectuals, students, and workers, it's a relief that a full military invasion didn't proceed.''
Still, reaction to the ``occupation not invasion'' has not been without ripples. Some say the occupation suggests the kind of violation of sovereignty that typifies the US approach to its southern neighbors.
On Monday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Miguel Burelli Rivas called the intervention ``lamentable.'' Though expressing satisfaction that the terms of the occupation would likely avoid large-scale bloodshed, Mr. Burelli says it is still one in a long line of US military interventions in Latin America.
``Opposition to this kind of occupation reflects one of the long-established principles of our policy, which is rejection of any armed intervention in another country,'' says Luis Moreno Gomez, chief spokesman in the Venezuelan foreign ministry.
Violation of sovereignty was also the theme of an editorial in Mexico City's daily La Jornada, which said: ``The presence of foreign troops on any country's soil is intrinsically incompatible with the exercise of democracy.''
It added that foreign mandates, ``whether long or limited, necessarily restrict the exercising of that right.'' As evidence, the editorial cited an earlier presence of US troops in Haiti ``that allowed the rise of one of the most corrupt and antidemocratic oligarchies.''
In Panama, on the other hand, Mr. Gandasegui notes that the US was criticized by some for not carrying out an invasion of Haiti. The Panama City daily La Prensa, in an editorial this week reflecting the thinking of the country's most conservative elements, criticized the US for being less decisive and firm on Haiti than it had been with the Panama of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Official reaction was largely positive, however. Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem, whose country had stood alone in Latin America as an advocate for armed intervention to restore democracy in Haiti, lauded the US for having avoided ``a real massacre.'' President Menem has faced intense criticism from opposition politicians for having offered asylum to Haiti's military dictators.
In addition, Colombian Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo says President Clinton ``deserves credit for having ... challenged what seemed to be practically impossible negotiating conditions, and for having taken the peaceful path.''
OBSERVERS point to a number of reasons why Latin American objections to the occupation of one of the hemisphere's nations were so muted. For one, US action was backed by United Nations resolutions. ``Like it or not, the action has a legal character,'' says a Latin American official.
Others suggest that the spread of democracy throughout Latin America has allowed the populace to become more involved in domestic affairs. ``Ours is a big country with lots of problems of our own, and people are taking a bigger interest in what's happening at home and less in a distant place like Haiti,'' says one Brazilian official.
Venezuela's Mr. Moreno says Latin America's democratization is making for a wider range of reactions. ``In the past, there was one reaction to this kind of event, and it was a reaction that reflected the military thinking of military dictators,'' he says. ``The difference now is that each country is responding according to its own interests, which are not the same for everybody.''
Those higher interests generally include maintaining good relations with the US, especially with hopes of expanded trade and with December's Summit of the Americas in Miami topping many countries' agendas. That has left Haiti a pawn, Gandasegui says, of some countries' desire to enhance relations with their big northern neighbor.
``When [Panama's] president offered to grant asylum to [Haitian military leader Raoul] Cedras,'' he says, ``many people here took it less as an offer to help Haiti than as part of a game being played with the US.''