WHEN he was asked in a press conference last week why Haiti was important to the United States, President Clinton responded with words that have usually sent shivers down Latin American backs: ``We have an interest in stabilizing those democracies that are in our hemisphere.''
For more than a century such lofty words have been invoked by US presidents to justify unlofty behavior: at least a dozen military interventions, some appended by harsh occupations, undertaken to advance the US's own interests in the hemisphere. In a sign of changing times, Latin American leaders appear to be taking the words of the current US president at face value. As Mr. Clinton sizes up the next possible US invasion in the hemisphere - to topple Haiti's military junta - the opposition that would once have been reflexive in Latin America has given way to ambivalence.
``History says no, but the reality of the situation is that we may have to accept it,'' says a senior diplomat at the Organization of American States of military intervention, now considered likely, to restore exiled Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The dilemma the Haitian crisis poses in Latin America was highlighted on July 31 when Argentina voted in favor of and Brazil against the UN resolution authorizing a US-led invasion of Haiti.
On one hand, Latin American leaders have lost patience with the Haitian junta, whose subversion of democracy sets a bad precedent in the hemisphere. On the other hand, few Latin governments wish to see a precedent for later US intervention, even in the name of preserving democracy and human rights.
On one hand, Latin Americans have historically thought in terms of solidarity against their powerful neighbor to the north. On the other hand, Haiti is largely a cipher in the diplomatic calculations of most Latin nations.
``It's poor, it's French, and it's black,'' notes Susan Kaufman Purcell, vice president of the Americas Society, in New York. ``So in terms of language and culture, race and level of development, Haiti is off their screens.''
The Latin dilemma is highlighted another way: While suspicion of US motives still resonates to a degree, especially among parties of the left and in public opinion, most government officials and policy elites believe the US now has more benign intentions in the hemisphere.
``Old ideas are not useful to analyze the present time,'' says another Latin American diplomat on assignment in Washington.
Historically, a genuine US interest in democracy has coexisted with a determination to preserve financial or strategic interests, like securing the Panama Canal or fighting communism. But strategic considerations have diminished since the end of the cold war. Meanwhile, the US has made a symbolic break with the past by seeking UN authorization for military action instead of invoking the Monroe Doctrine, with its mandate for unilateral action.
All of which has not only eased the fears of Latin Americans but, among some, created an impatience to get on with the job. ``If the US keeps waiting and waiting, everything will be worse and worse,'' notes the second diplomat.
``It's an irony,'' notes the diplomat - ``When the US has the right reason to act it goes to the UN. When it doesn't have the right reason, it doesn't.''