Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze arrived in Brazil this weekend to begin the highest-level visit ever made by a Soviet official to South America. His ten-day tour is seen by political analysts here as a clear indication of Moscow's new emphasis on strengthening diplomatic ties with emerging industrial democracies in Latin America.
This region has traditionally been seen by those in the Western Hemisphere as the target of clandestine Soviet support for revolutionary activity.
Mr. Shevardnadze's visit to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, political analysts say, is expected to clear the way for a 1988 visit to the region by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The foreign minister is reportedly stopping in Cuba on his way home, although there has been no offical announcement.
In Bras'ilia today, Shevardnadze is scheduled to hold talks with Foreign Minister Roberto de Abreu Sodr'e and President Jos'e Sarney. The two foreign ministers will sign an economic, industrial, scientific and technological agreement.
The Soviets have distanced themselves at least on the surface from straightforward support for revolutionary movements in the region in exchange for improved government-to-government relations, a United States diplomat here says.
According to a former Argentine foreign minister, Nicanor Costa M'endez, ``The Soviet foreign minister is making a tour of the South American countries that mean more in the political arena as a public relations move. He wants to show these countries that the Soviets are not interested in subversive war, but that they want to maintain a good relationship.''
The Shevardnadze visit, says a former Argentine commerce official, is likely to be viewed popularly as an independent ``thumbing of the nose'' to the ``Yanqui'' dominance that South Americans blame for many of the region's economic problems.
The South American public is oriented more to a North-South - or rich-poor, creditor-debtor - perspective than to the East-West superpower struggle.
Most analysts agree that Soviet influence is relatively low in this sphere of US dominance.
``The possibilities of Soviets supporting Latin America in their more urgent needs such as foreign debt [relief], new investment, and credit are really limited. They're not in a postion to give us a penny,'' says Oscar Camilion, a lawyer who has held various posts in the Argentine foreign ministry. In view of the economic failures of Castro's Cuba, he says, there is little likelihood South Americans would expect relief from communist systems to resolve the region's critical social and economic problems.
But the US diplomat says he sus pects the Soviet initiative to be ``a foot in the door for creating an infrastructure for revolution.''
As civilian governments have replaced military regimes in all but two countries on the continent in the last eight years, Moscow's initiative in the region has focused on expanded trade relations. This is especially true in Argentina, political analysts say, where ties with Moscow are the longest and strongest.
Argentina and the Soviet Union, for example, have fishing agreements covering waters near the Falklands Islands, still under dispute by Argentina and Britain. Although the Soviets have stayed out of British-claimed waters, their agreement to be licensed to fish by Argentina rather than by Britain implies quiet support for Argentina.
A Soviet offer to cooperate with Argentina on space issues implies a deeper Soviet interest in the region than trade ties alone would suggest. Press reports here say Moscow is offering to train Argentine Air Force personnel with Soviet cosmonauts and to help build and launch a satellite for Argentina.
Moscow's new approach, suggests the US diplomat, has allowed it to establish a growing presence in Argentina. There are Soviet airline employees, fishing crews, and contractors for utility projects freely moving about the mainland. And, he says, commercial ties with Argentina have already given the Soviets a measure of leverage here. ``The fact is, the Argentines are almost totally dependent on the Soviets for export income.''
Moscow became nearly the sole buyer of Argentine grain when the US embargoed grain sales to the Soviet Union in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the past two years, the Soviets have drastically cut grain purchases from Argentina. The 1981 annual peak of $1.1 billion worth of wheat, corn, and sorghum purchases has dropped to $100 million today. The cuts are said to be a sign of Soviet unhappiness with the fact that Argentina has imported only about $50 million of Soviet goods annually.
Observers here say they think the unfavorable trade balance will be a major topic of discussion for Shevardnadze. The Soviets will be trying to peddle big ticket items such as utility projects. And Argentines will be eager to reactivate grain sales to their biggest and best-paying customer. Argentine agricultural exports - the bulk of which have gone recently to the Soviets - account for 70 percent of the foreign exchange earned to pay the nation's $53 billion foreign debt.
Argentina denies dependence on the Soviet market. But with the world grain glut, low prices, and growing grain self-sufficiency of former grain-buying nations, a customer like the Soviets, who pay in dollars and at better than world price, would be hard to replace.