Reagan bolsters Latin American confidence in US

During his trip to South and Central America, President Reagan worked hard to bolster the confidence of Latin American leaders in the friendship of the United States.

To a large degree he appears to have succeeded. All but one of the six national leaders he met reacted warmly and positively to his reassurances. The holdout was Colombia's President Belisario Betancur who publicly distanced himself from the Reagan position on Central America.

In Brazil, Costa Rica, and Honduras, the Reagan strategy of trying to instill new confidence and to point to these nations as worthy of private investment and foreign aid was well received. As Secretary of State George Shultz said, ''the ( designed, on the one hand, to help Brazil, and on the other, to be an expression of confidence and support in the Brazilian economy.''

But much will now depend on the US Congress. For, in many ways, the follow-up to the Reagan trip will be as important as the trip itself. And President Reagan was careful to try to avoid raising expectations for American assistance to Latin America too high.

If the President fails to persuade the Congress to approve of the provisions for duty-free exports to the US from Central America and the Caribbean - which are part of Reagan's Caribbean Basin economic initiative - this will deliver a severe blow to a nation such as Costa Rica.

Latin Americans will also be watching to see how the Congress votes on foreign aid provisions which will affect the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).

The US refusal so far to increase its contributions to the IADB was another target of Colombian President Betancur's criticism.

Increases in aid to Israel were cited as one problem in the aid field. In a talk with reporters, Secretary of State Shultz said that with the Congress tending to vote ever-increasing aid for Israel within a fixed ceiling for total aid, ''you squeeze everything else out.''

The President's charm was particularly successful in Brazil, the most important of the nations he visited. The President clearly left long-strained relations much improved.

During the last half of his trip, the President found both warmth and a warning. The latter was President Betancur's warning against attempts to isolate leftist-led Nicaragua and put pressure on its regime. Mr. Reagan, when asked by reporters in Costa Rica about reports that the CIA was helping coordinate cross-border activities from Honduras into Nicaragua, refused to discuss ''matters of national security.''

The warmth came in Costa Rica, where President Reagan heard praise for the United States. In contrast with a measure of popular apathy in Brazil and some outright unfriendliness in Colombia, Reagan found people cheering him in San Jose, Costa Rica. As the Reagan motorcade moved by on Dec. 4, one woman cried out: ''America, we love you!''

The most controversial moment of the trip was when Reagan met with President Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala and promised him his support. Human-rights organizations have accused the Rios Montt regime of massacring defenseless Indians suspected of supporting Guatemala's guerrillas.

Because of Guatemala's human-rights record, the United States has long withheld aid from that Central American nation. But Reagan clearly set himself apart from President Carter's attitude toward Guatemala when he said US officials had in the past shown a ''certain insensitivity'' to Latin American governments. Some observers think that Reagan's embrace may have saved Rios Montt from a military coup. A number of military leaders were reported to have been plotting against Rios only within the last several weeks.

The US President also took a firm line on aid to El Salvador. In answer to questions, he said Dec. 3 that he would ask Congress to continue military and economic aid to El Salvador. He said the Salvadorans in the area of human rights ''are trying very hard and are making great progress against great odds.''

In summing up the five-day trip, a US State Department official said, ''I think what the President has done is to identify this administration with Latin America and its potential.'' Reagan has ''an almost romantic view'' of the potential for cooperation between the US and Latin America, he added.

''I've never seen him quite so excited about a trip,'' said Michael K. Deaver , the White House deputy chief of staff, toward the end of Reagan's Latin America trip. Deaver described Reagan as ''dazzled'' by Brazil. Even in Colombia , where Reagan had to listen to President Betancur's criticism of the United States in a toast, Deaver contended that Reagan managed to improve relations.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.