EVEN IN the most adverse circumstances, there are always a few in the desert who continue to cry out for social justice. Thus it is heartening to report the publication of two works on human rights at a time when the U.S. administration is actively disinterested in the subject.

The books grew out of a 5-year interdisciplinary study by 19 noted scholars at the Jesuit-sponsored Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Concerned primarily with U.S.-Latin American relations, Human Rights in the Americas: The Struggle for Consensus and its companion volume, Human Rights and Basic Needs in the Americas, also examine the larger picture of what such rights mean to people in the very different historical, cultural and economic circumstances of the First and Third Worlds.

Human Rights in the Americas, edited by Jesuits Alfred Hennelly and John Langan, is the more ambitious in its attempt to formulate a theory of human rights. That the authors fail in no way detracts from the valuable insights they offer. Chief among them is a broader definition of human rights, beyond Amnesty International's important but much narrower concerns with torture and murder. The authors' definition includes rights to the means of survival like food, work and health.

While it may seem obvious to many of us who live in the Third World, U.S. governments have never understood the historically proven connection between repression and poverty on the one hand and the inevitability of popular rebellions on the other. "Communist subversion" has always seemed a simpler explanation for the inherent instability of our allies in the Latin American military regimes. The Woodstock authors examine the U.S. rationale for backing such unpopular governments, questioning why we Americans support tyranny in the name of freedom.

The 11 essays in Human Rights in the Americas approach the subject from three different traditions: the Catholic, the liberal and the Marxist. All play an important role in Latin America and its relations with the United States -- Catholicism because it is the dominant religion in the region, the liberal tradition because it is the philosophical base for most of the West's political systems, and Marxism for its intellectual appeal as a political alternative to capitalism. Whatever the philosophical starting point, the authors agree on one essential point: that all humans enjoy certain basic rights, regardless of class or race, simply by virtue of being human persons, and that these rights can neither be granted nor abolished by individuals or governments.

The problem in any discussion of human rights stems from trying to reconcile different cultural definitions of the term. In the liberal tradition of the West, individual rights count more than social ones, and civil and political freedoms are more important than economic ones. In Marxist socialism, on the other hand, the rights to work and to minimal levels of nutrition and education outweigh personal freedoms, which are limited by economic and social considerations. Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholicism has attempted to incorporate individual, social and economic rights within the larger framework of human dignity.

Seen from an ethical viewpoint, neither liberalism nor Marxism can claim a good record on human rights. A case in point is El Salvador, where a U.S.-supported military-civilian government and a hard-line Marxist guerrilla force have both been guilty of atrocities, albeit the former more than the latter. Quite a few progressive Catholics in Central America question whether human rights would be any more respected under a Marxist government in El Salvador; but for many Salvadoran peasants at this stage in the struggle, that is a moot point: all they know is that anything has to be better than the torture, murder and starvation they have endured for the past half century under military regimes.

The Woodstock essays are most enlightening in pointing out the inconsistencies between our concern for individual liberties at home and official U.S. support for repressive regimes in places like Central America. As theologian Philip Rossi points out, "On the one hand, we have generally been willing to accept uncritically the belief that maintenance of our domestic political institutions and civil liberties is tied to the continued successful operation of the institutions of free-enterprise capitalism; on the other hand, we have ignored what now appears as the clear possibility that the fitful operation and frequent failure of comparable civil political institutions in Latin America to secure even minimal protection of rights we take for granted, may be the result of these same economic institutions."

Put more bluntly, by Uruguayan theologian Juan Luis Segundo: "The tragedy of the situation is that the ones who determine and control the defense of human rights . . . are the very ones who make human rights impossible in three-quarters of the planet."

Jesuit Drew Christiansen, who writes the final essay in Human Rights in the Americas, is particularly good at exposing our self-delusions. Because of our "general enchantment with growth," he says, U.S. leaders thought that American free enterprise could banish widespread poverty and repressive forms of government in the developing nations through large injections of U.S. capital. But this "trickle-down" theory has failed in the Third World where in most cases any increase in the gross national product has simply increased the wealth of the rich, both local and foreign, leaving the poor even worse off. Nevertheless, Washington and such multilateral institutions as the International Monetary Fund continue to insist on free market policies as a sine qua non of development.

Christiansen believes there is "no point of accommodation" between basic needs in Latin America and the capitalist idea of freedom. "Liberty is a vain ideal unless all people have sufficient means to begin to enjoy living and to sustain their independence against outside manipulation. In other words, basic economic security, like public safety, is essential to assuring equal liberty for all."

Because of cultural blindness, says Christiansen, Americans often feel threatened when other peoples seek to replace the free-enterprise system with a more socially equitable form of government. Since the system has worked for them, they think it should work for others, not understanding that in most developing nations it works only for the few who can repress the many.

Human Rights and Basic Needs in the Americas, edited by historian Margaret E. Crahan, amply proves Christiansen's point that the United States too often supports "petty despots because they promise to bring order and stability to their region," when in reality they achieve just the opposite. The language of the 10 essays is dry, and bereft of any rhetoric, but the authors have assembled an irrefutable case against the national security states which have emerged in Latin America with Washington's blessing.

In country after country they show how internal repression has been used in the name of anti-communism to prevent the majority of the people from seeking better living conditions through wider political participation. The studies also prove that there are no inherent economic obstacles to meeting such basic needs as nutrition and education in most Latin American countries. They have the resources to fulfill such needs. Rather, the elites in these nations have purposefully chosen a capitalist model of concentration to prevent the majority from sharing in their power and wealth.

The authors show that, while not originally responsible for this situation, the United States has encouraged Latin America's civilian-military elites in their ambitions, in order to secure sources of raw materials and a "safe" environment for U.S. private investments. Ironically Washington's preoccupation with stability and security has helped create a situation in which the only way the people can change the economic and political structures that bind them is through insurrection.

The argument that repression is necessary to insure stability for economic development is clearly refuted by the reality of Latin America. Thus the Woodstock authors correctly conclude that on economic, political and moral grounds, support for such regimes only undermines the United States' position in competition for influence with the Communist powers.