Latin America reluctantly backs Argentina on Falklands

Latin Americans relish the story of the late Argentine dictator Juan Domingo Peron's visit to a classroom in one of Buenos Aires' many British schools, where instruction was in English in the morning and Spanish in the afternoon.

Going to the map of the world and pointing to a crop of islands in the South Atlantic, Mr. Peron asked one of the boys in the class to name the islands.

The young student promptly replied: ''In the morning they are the Falklands, in the afternoon they are the Malvinas.''

The story may be apocryphal. But it suggests both the depth of Argentina's claim to the Falklands, which it calls the Malvinas, and Latin America's awareness of the longstanding Argentine-British dispute over them.

To many Latin Americans, however, the dispute has seemed removed and essentially inconsequential. After all, the Falklands and their dependencies of South Georgia and South Sandwich are relatively minuscule islands--lonely dots of real estate in a remote, forbidding, and often turbulent South Atlantic.

Now, with their seizure by Argentina last week, the Falklands have moved to center stage for Latin America.

As British warships head toward the South Atlantic, some two weeks away, Latin Americans are suddenly aware that a war over the islands is possible--and that it could, indeed, involve some of them.

The issue presents Latin America with a basic dilemma:

Although there is a paternal inclination to support Argentina against a bit of British colonialism, there is also a deep-seated horror at what many Latin Americans regard as--naked aggression on the part of Argentina.

There is also concern that Argentina's actions in the Falklands could set a precedent for nations with border disputes to simply takes matters into their own hands and seize territory. At the moment there are at least 20 such disputes throughout the hemisphere.

It is unlikely therefore that Argentina will get all the support it wants, or may need, from sister republics in Latin America. Early reaction from many capitals has been cautious.

The Brazilian Foreign Ministry, for example, has announced its support of Argentina's claim to the islands, but not the Argentine seizure of them. Similar reactions have come from other foreign ministries.

Newspaper and radio commentary has been equally restrained and, in some cases , even somewhat antagonistic to the Argentine claim to the Falkland Islands.

''If one believes in self-determination of peoples, and we do,'' said a Peruvian radio commentary, ''then we must say that the Malvinas Islands are British for, after all, their inhabitants say they want British rule.''

This Latin American reaction, which at best amounts to reluctant support of Argentina, is bound to be more fully aired before the Organization of American States if there is a military confrontation between Britain and Argentina at the Falklands. Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanore Costa Mendez Tuesday told the OAS Permanent Council in Washington that he expected Latin American nations would support Argentina.

In a final analysis, Argentina can probably count on limited support, particularly if there is a clash once the British fleet arrives. But it is unlikely that Latin America would move quickly to give Argentina actual military support.

Argentina wants to invoke the Rio de Janeiro Treaty of Mutual Assistance, which provides for Western Hemisphere nations coming to the aid of any member nation under attack.

But observers note there is some doubt in legal circles whether the treaty can be invoked when the member country in question has provoked the attack. It has long been held, for instance, that the treaty could not have been invoked by the United States in the Vietnam war or the landing of marines in Lebanon in 1958.

Moreover, Argentina may find that its invasion of the Falklands and the resultant dispute with Britain has provided Chile with an opportunity to gain military and perhaps territorial advantage over Argentina.

Chilean armed forces have been placed on the alert and are reportedly reinforcing garrisons along the Chilean-Argentine frontier, particulary west of the Argentine region of Patagonia. This region was once Chilean, but became Argentine because of treaty settlements in the late 1800s. But some Chilean nationalists still want the region back.

The two countries have long disputed three small islands in the Beagle Channel at the tip of South America. They almost went to war over them in 1980. There are some suggestions that Chile may move quickly to ensure not only its control over the three islands but also over adjacent territory while Argentina is preoccupied with its dispute with Britain.

Although these ominous war clouds could dissipate, there is considerable speculation in hemisphere circles about Chilean action against Argentina.

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