THE Latin American nations have begun to improve their economic, social, and political situation by working cooperatively. In the process, they are gaining a clearer sense of their own identity. This is a major, positive trend in the Western Hemisphere. Continental unity has been a Latin American dream since the days of 19th-century Latin liberator S'imon Bol'ivar. Roots of much of the new self-reliance lie in the Central American conflict. In 1983 Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama joined hands as the Contadora group to try to resolve the regional dispute. Two years later Argentina, Peru, Brazil, and Uruguay formed a support group. Their efforts have been succeeded by the even more local Arias plan. But the Contadora group and its supporters, now known as the Group of Eight, has evolved into something more; it stands ready to help Central America with verification details and economic aid but is also a forum for discussion of other issues.
A few weeks ago in Acapulco, presidents of the Group of Eight tackled such common concerns as the $350 billion debt they share and needed revamping of the Organization of American States. Most have formal relations with Cuba and want to readmit it to the regional forums from which it has been banned for 25 years. Also, the group urges that foreign debt repayments be geared to each country's capacity to pay and that a ceiling be placed on interest rates.
Presidents of these eight Latin nations indulged in no anti-US diatribe and tried to assuage US concern that their talks were meant as an alternative to the OAS, of which the United States is also a member. Still, the spirit of independence behind the political talks and the interest in Cuba make the US uneasy. In the Nicaraguan conflict, too, the initiative has quietly passed to the Central Americans. Such regional self-reliance should make the US somewhat more humble. Washington still carries enormous influence in Latin nations, but its not calling all the shots should be good for both Latins and the US.
Most of the Latin nations reaching out to others for help are fragile new democracies. Civilian leaders have replaced military governments in 10 Latin nations since 1979. Yet, conservative military forces hover close to the seat of power, ready to move in if the need arises. Many new presidents have felt pressed to go easy in prosecuting former military leaders accused of past crimes and have moved only gingerly toward needed land reform.
At the Acapulco meeting, Argentine President Ra'ul Alfons'in noted that new democracies such as his may not survive unless a solution to the debt crisis can be found. A few nations, such as Peru, which links debt repayment to growth of exports, have withheld payments. But most have kept up interest payments, not wanting to cut themselves off from further financing. They continue to play the game, though debt principal is rarely touched and domestic economic growth is severely inhibited. The industrial world is going to have to come up with some better answers, including debt relief. Perhaps another Bretton Woods forum is in order.
Even as they wait for international help, Latin nations are trying to team up economically when and where they can. Brazil and Argentina, old-time rivals and two of the largest debtors in the developing world, last year signed an agreement to reduce tariff barriers and increase the flow of capital. As a result, bilateral trade is up almost 50 percent. They are also cooperating in the development of hydroelectric and nuclear power.
But border disputes, national pride, and economic realities consistently work against such progress. A regional common market envisioned in the '60s has yet to take hold, partly because products that help one nation often do not help another.
Latin America, seeing a vacuum, has begun to take the kind of initiatives this hemisphere has rarely seen before. It is a good sign. The US should not view the development as ominous. As Uruguayan Foreign Minister Enrique Iglesias says: ``There can be no real Pan Americanism without real Latin Americanism.''