A provocative challenge to the United States for paying attention to Latin America only in moments of crisis and then displaying ''intolerable paternalism'' heralded the recent opening of a $6 million think tank designed to improve relations within the Western hemisphere.
The challenge was issued by former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, who said: ''I am convinced that this unstable conduct of United States-Latin American relations springs from a basic US distrust of Latin Americans.''
His words were in sharp contrast with the rather optimistic view of other speakers at ceremonies last month for the inauguration of the Institute of the Americas. But they show why many people favored beginning such an institute.
The new hemisphere think tank eschews political ideology - which seemed evident in the variety of views expressed at the opening seminar.
Raul Prebisch, the grand old man of Latin American economics, said at the opening ceremonies: ''I'm sorry to speak about this subject which is not proper for this fine gathering: I'm going to speak about inequality in Latin America.'' He talked about poverty and backwardness in Latin America, saying these are problems which need tp be considered and then solved. His parting message was that, once admitted and understood, ''they are solvable.''
The chief backer of the think tank, San Diego businessman Theodore Gildred, Jr., said he had long wanted to set up an institute to bridge ''misunderstandings'' between the US and Latin America - and ''to confront the fears of the patronizing big brother to the north and the image of the backward nations to the south plagued with unrest.''
When dedication ceremonies took place last month, the institute was simultaneously hosting talks between leading Latin American and US thinkers on problems of the Latin America-US relationship.
In the future, the institute plans to hold seminars and conferences dealing with such issues as Latin America's debt crisis, Mexico's economic recovery, hemisphere agricultural policies, and joint United States-Latin American business ventures.
Support for the project comes largely from the Gildred Foundation, begun by Mr. Gildred's father, who 50 years ago made the first airplane flight to Quito, Ecuador, and later was active in real estate development in Mexico. The institute sits astride a knoll overlooking the Pacific at the University of California-San Diego.