Latin America: time for 'benign neglect'

Let it be said at the outset: the Reagan administration has done the right thing in the Anglo-Argentine war over the Falkland Islands. But it has paid a surprisingly high price in Latin America.

It is not too much to say that as a consequence of United States support of the British, US policy in Latin America is in a shambles. In one blinding flash the 17-0 pro-Argentine vote in the Organization of American States sent a structure, laboriously built over 35 years, crashing down like a house of cards.

Underneath was an unsuspected depth of feeling which some otherwise well-informed Latin American hands in Washington still tend to underestimate. Latin American alienation from the US is no transitory phenomenon. It was not caused by the Falklands crisis; it was revealed. It is a mistake to think that this will blow over and that then we can go back to business as usual. Instead, we have to start all over again. It is good that the House Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, under the capable chairmanship of Rep. Michael D. Barnes , is going to do precisely that in hearings commencing later this month.

In this process of rethinking the problem, it would be unwise to leap to conclusions either ruling something out or taking it for granted. We don't have to have a policy in place next week, but we do need to get on with the task of devising one. Here are some points for consideration:

To start with, maybe it's time to recognize the OAS for the weak reed that it is. The US has traditionally tried to use the OAS to give a color of multilateral support to what amounted to bilateral US policies. That tactic has now been clearly revealed as bankrupt, and various Latin Americans are rejoicing that they have finally taken the organization away from the US. Maybe we ought to let them have it, not in a fit of pique but in sober recognition that what we had been trying to do with it did not work.

This implies less emphasis on regionalism in the US approach to Latin America , and that would be good in itself, quite apart from the OAS. It would make it easier to recognize, and adjust to, the enormous diversity of the area. It has long been a perverse characteristic of US policy that the amount of attention a country receives varies inversely with its size and importance. Contrast, for example, Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, on the one hand, with Mexico and Brazil, on the other.

Another element in a new approach to Latin America ought to be to deal with it in its own right and not as a battleground in the cold war. This may be particularly difficult for the Reagan administration, but, if it can be brought off, it should pay large dividends. It would give the Latins something they have not had very often in dealing with the US, and that is a feeling that they are important for their own sake and not merely as pawns in a global chess game.

This would not only enhance Latin dignity; it would tend to encourage Latin responsibility. The US tendency to emphasize cold war considerations has produced two Latin American reactions, both of them mischievous. On the one hand , the Latins have used the threat of going communist to blackmail the US into giving them more economic or military aid or political support. On the other hand, they have dealt with their own people, and sometimes with their neighbors, on the usually correct assumption that, so long as they are sufficiently anticommunist, the US will put up with almost anything.

Another beneficial corollary would perhaps be a more relaxed American attitude toward change in Latin America. North Americans have long been ambivalent about this. US rhetoric has encouraged liberal change along the lines of the New Deal or Christian Democratic parties, but, as soon as the change moved beyond that and became radical or violent, Washington has recoiled in horror. On the other hand, Washington frequently welcomed radical change to the right, as in the case of Brazil in the 1960s (Johnson administration) and Chile in the 1970s (Nixon administration).

We ought not to allow ourselves to get trapped in a sterile debate over the activities of Soviet agents in Latin America; there is no disputing there are Latin American communists. The point here is that obsessive preoccupation with communism obscures the fact that, quite apart from communism, there are many powerful forces for change in Latin America today, most of them pushing to the left. In many countries, we have tried in one way or another, and almost always with a conspicuous lack of success, to influence or control these forces. We would be in a better position to deal with them later on, if we simply let nature take its course.

US policy toward Latin America has been at worst interventionist and at best manipulative. Both approaches have failed. We have tended to intervene or manipulate for the wrong causes at the wrong times in the wrong places. Maybe it's time to consider a policy which Senator Moynihan once made famous in another context - benign neglect.

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