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Business defends dealing with authoritarian rulers

When the eggs and epithets began flying at David Rockefeller here last Friday , it was no great surprise. The Chase Manhattan Bank chairman is often attacked by both those on the extreme right and those on the extreme left.

Right-wingers accuse the wealthy businessman of being a communist conspirator , aiming to take over the world through a plot centered in the Trilateral Commission. Leftists charge him with being the world's leading capitalist imperialist.

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The views are hardly reconcilable. But the combination of wealth and power personified by the Rockefellers has always prompted envy and fear.

So, when a small group of young people began shouting "Rockefeller, murderer" and less printable terms as he stood up to address a meeting of the World Affairs Council of Boston and receive its Christian A. Herter Memorial Award, the only question was whether they were from the right or left. Their foul language provided a clue. Leftists of the non-Soviet-backed variety often sound angry and bitter.Anyway, it was no surprise when one report held that they were members of the Communist Revolutionary Party.

The episode raised an issue which has long troubled many bankers and businessmen: Should foreign trade, investment, and finance be ruled by questions of politics and ethics or should it be amoral, unconcerned with the harshness of the regime governing a country?

Executives are often accused of being in favor of any rightist dictatorship that provides stability, no matter how cruel, because this is good for business.

In some instances, that may be true. But in most cases, the arguments of executives are more subtle and refined.

For example, a questioner noted that New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis had criticized Mr. Rockefeller for his support of the military junta of Argentina. Yet thousands of opponents of the regime have disappeared, apparently murdered by supporters of the government. What was his reply? he asked at a press conference after his talk.

Mr. Rockefeller first jabbed at such critics as Mr. Lewis by maintaining that they are very hard on authoritarian nations on the right but say very little about totalitarian nations on the left. He also was making a distinction between "authoritarian" governments of the right which permit some degree of freedom and "totalitarian" regimes, usually those of the left, where freedom is much more restricted.

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The banker then noted the circumstances behind the junta rule -- 30 years of Peronism which was an economic "disaster" for the country, and a group of "Cuban and Soviet-trained guerillas" who "systematically tried to destroy the government" through kidnappings and murders.

The military has eliminated the terrorists by the same means used by the terrorists, he said, though some five years ago it moved toward less repression.

People like Mr. Lewis, he went on, are much less concerned about terrorists than about people trying to stop terrorists. Argentina, he argued, would be a communist state today and "more repressive" had not the military suppressed the terrorists.

Mr. Rockefeller also held that the junta does want to see a return to democracy in Argentina. It is better to work with the junta to help restore the economy and encourage its members to improve human rights behind the scenes, he argued.

Broadening his point, Mr. Rockefeller argued that the Carter administration policy in Latin America was "rather wishy-washy" and "fuzzy" with its emphasis on human rights. "We were pursuing policies not in the interests of this country -- and not in the long run in the interests of human rights."

Thus, such businessmen as Mr. Rockefeller are debating means more than goals with the keen advocates of human rights. Mr. Rockefeller and his sort naturally would rather see humane democracies in other nations. But, they figure this development may have to come gradually. Moreover, they prefer regimes of the right to those of the left because the former are more amenable to progress toward genuine democracy. And rightist governments tend to be allies of the West -- not of the Soviet Union. Conservative businessmen also naturally tend to be more fearful of the socialist left than of the propertied right.

With such thinking in the background, Mr. Rockefeller backed the Reagan administration's threat to stop aid to Nicaragua unless arms shipments to El Salvador are stopped. This was "justified from a defense and security point of view," he said. The United States "cannot see parts of the Caribbean and Central America fall into the hands of Cuba, which is clearly a satellite of the Soviet Union."

He added that it must be made clear to the Soviet Union that "we are not going to tolerate aggressive moves around the world. . . . The Soviet Union understands power more than anything else.If they see it, they act with caution, and if they do not, they tend to move."

Thus in the continuing discussion over human rights, it will be necessary to be careful not to impugn wrongly the motives of the conservatives. Many are as horrified by torture and killings as liberals. But they diffe r in strategy as to the best route to a humane democracy.

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