More often than not, Latin America jumps from the back to the front pages of U.S. newspapers as the latest political upheaval or natural disaster seems to take on almost epic proportions.

As this happens, the Organization of American States, the world's oldest regional international agency, may find itself serving as a lightning rod through which its 27 active members from the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean either seek to defuse tensions that arise or respond to catastropies. But on those ordinary days when there's no crisis, the OAS plays a quiet diplomatic role in helping reduce political tensions in the region.

Beyond the political hotspots of the moment, there is another Latin America, the one that has grown more since 1945 than during the previous 175 years in terms of gross domestic product and per capita income.

Today Latin America and the Caribbean rank in the middle level on the world development spectrum. The area's gross domestic product is near $400 billion and should continue to expand at an accelerated rate, and its population will reach an estimated 600 million by the year 2000.

Even with the vast growth, much of Latin America's potential remains untapped. Energy resources are not yet fully identified, and the area's food production and marketing output is perhaps only 30 percent of its potential. There are severe problems in certain subregions, including enormous pockets of poverty and social injustice. There are also severe shortages of trained engineers, scientists and technicians.

In addition to responding to political disputes between its members, the OAS is prepared to help its member countries overcome the development obstacles they face.

It does this, operating from its Washington headquarters, through a wide range of technical activities in education, science, culture, marketing and economic planning.

Compared to the multibillion dollar budgets of financial institutions like the World Bank, OAS financial resources are extremely limited, with a total annual budget just over $80 million. Yet its member countries frequently use the organization's resources to help plan vast new projects, for which they then seek financing from many financial institutions, both public and private.

For example, an OAS prefeasibility study on integral rural development for western Honduras cost $450,000, but led to $120 million in funding by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and collaboration by two OAS observer states, Canada and Israel.

During much of its 90-year history, the OAS has been deeply involved in promoting trade, industry and commerce in the hemisphere, including programs to:

Plan regional highway systems.

Evaluate road projects in OAS countries.

Enlarge market-to-farm road networks.

Development guides for highway construction and maintenance.

Promote port safety and use.

Analyze radio broadcasting, including measurement of ionospheric programming.

Foster rural communications.

Cooperate in tax harmonization measures among several countries.

Train experts in subregional systems of economic integration.

More specifically, however, the OAS supports the advancement of industry and commerce throught its programs, which have sought to:

Create employment opportunities and upgrade job skills for a wide variety of businesses.

Expand meat production through improved livestock raising and fishing techniques.

Conduct research on, exploration and exploitation of bituminous shales as new energy sources.

Test various OAS states revise their tax systems. In one country, this effort helped increase income tax collection for the 1979 tax year by an estimated 20 percent over 1978.

Promote strategies for development of tourism, such as preparing a tourism marketing inventory for the municipality of Buenos Aires and developing a policy to improve small hotels in Barbados.

Support Nicaragua's efforts to provide rapid training in branches of industrial electronics.

For many years the OAS also has been involved in activities designed to stimulate international trade and to promote exports.

Its experts have created trade information centers, offered guidance on transportation and fiscal incentives to export activity and projects to make specific products suitable for international trade.

A typical example of the OAS at work was a series of projects to help market in the northeast United States fresh fruits and vegetables from the countries bordering on the Caribbean.

Through its New York office, the OAS offers trade information, including market profiles to help Latin American and Caribbean exporters. In addition, it has co-sponsored a regular trade fair of the Americas in Miami that has helped step up interchange between buyers and exporters. Finally, the organization helps Latin America and the Caribbean search for new solutions to the problems of international trade in basic products: sugar, coffee, bananas, meat, bauxite, copper and tin, all of which are vital to the U.S. economy as well.

In carrying out these business promotion activities, the OAS hopes to improve the climate between public and private sectors in the hemisphere. It brings together government officials and private busineesmen to discuss export promotion and mechanisms such as joint ventures, export cooperatives, marketing companies and consortia.

In the course of a year the OAS may have dozens of projects under way in its member countries to support the objectives of trade and export promotion.

About 70 percent of all U.S. investment in the Third World, or $36 billion, is in Latin America and the Caribbean. Each year U.S. business earns over $5 billion on the investment. Exports are increasingly vital to the U.S. economy, and Latin America is buying more and more of U.S. production.

Out of sheer self-interest, U.S. business has good and substantial reason to help multiply the purchasing power of its neighbors to the south. This can be done through U.S. cooperation with Latin America's development agenda, especially in energy, food production, trade and financing.

During 1981, OAS members have agreed to hold a special assembly on regional cooperation for development. If it succeeds, this assembly could help inspire and stimulate a new period of economic and developmental cooperation among the peoples and societies of this hemisphere.

Not only governments but businesses have a stake in the results of this upcoming assembly. It is essential that business and industry leaders look seriously into its prospocts. The future in the Americas, as well as that of millions of persons seeking a better life, will be involved. CAPTION:

Picture, Alejandro Orfila of the OAS. By Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post