Not only is grass always greener on the other side of the fence, but so apparently is money.

During the 1980s, while America's jet-set investors focused first on the profits in Japan and then in Europe, one of the decade's strongest stock markets was Mexico's.

And while entrepreneurs go tumbling after opportunities in Eastern Europe, the leading countries of Latin America are years ahead in understanding private investment.

Until fairly recently, Central and South America had been written off the investment map. Dictatorship, class grievances, corrupt state-owned enterprises, regulated markets and hostility to outside capital, especially America's, has been holding most of these countries in thrall.

But in recent years, a few home-grown examples are making it clear that Latin America needn't be synonymous with expatriate wealth, huddled poverty and hyper inflation.

Chile and Mexico led the way toward stronger private enterprise and more-balanced economies. Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are taking steps in that direction. As these countries open their securities markets, investors follow -- chiefly through closed-end mutual funds.

With a closed-end mutual fund, money is raised just once, for investment in an ever-changing portfolio of securities. The fund trades like a stock. You buy shares through a stockbroker, not from the fund itself. Closed-end funds are attractively priced when you can buy at a considerable discount (10 percent or more) from the value of the securities in their portfolios.

The latest closed-end entry is the Latin America Investment Fund, brought out in July by Salomon Brothers Inc. It will normally put 65 percent of its assets (or more) into Mexico, Chile and Brazil, and the rest into other Latin countries.

The three-year-old Templeton Emerging Markets Fund, which invests in Third World markets everywhere, recently raised its commitment to Latin American by about 5 percent, reports its president, Mark Mobius, to a current total of 23 percent of assets. Mexico is Mobius's favorite country, followed by Turkey and Hong Kong.

The astonishing Mexico Fund is up 30 percent so far this year, reports Thomas J. Herzfeld Advisors, and not just on its oil advantage. Last year, the fund gained 111.6 percent, thanks in part to the freer-market views of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

In Chile, democratically elected President Patricio Aylwin is presiding over what the U.S. Department of Commerce calls "the most open market in Latin America." The Chile Fund had a great run earlier this year. But Chile depends heavily on imported oil. Due in part to the standoff with Iraq, the fund is now down 8 percent for the year.

The Brazil Fund, run by the Boston mutual-fund group, Scudder, Stevens & Clark, has had the wildest ride -- down 31 percent since January, compared with a 37.5 percent drop (in U.S. dollars) for the small Brazilian market as a whole.

Latin America won't clean up its act overnight. Many companies remain off-limits to private investors, including Pemex, Mexico's inefficient oil company. Furthermore, the growth economies depend heavily on the health of the United States. The risk of a U.S. recession helped knocked down the Mexican market by 15 percent in a week, says Javier Artigas, vice president of OBSA International, which manages the Mexico Fund.

Still, a lot of good assets south of the border are going cheap. A long-term investor should think about climbing aboard.