ASK ANY ARGENTINE why his countrymen are generally disliked, resented and ridiculed throughout Latin America, and without hesitation, he will invariably reply: They are envious, envious that we Argentines are a nation of pure, white European stock, that we live and prosper in a rich country, that we are cultured and literate, that we are not racial mongrels mixed with Indians and blacks.
Many Argentines will even quote an old saw that South America begins north of the Argentine city of Cordoba -- meaning that their country is an enclave of white Europeans, a sort of South Africa in a continent populated by mulattos and mestizos and the other 14 categories of inferior racial mixtures concocted by Spanish colonial administrators.
Even Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer who is critical of the intense nationalism of his fellow citizens, says, "We are fortunate that we don't have any sort of native culture, no Indian folklore to speak of," and then he wonders where the descendants of black slaves who used to abound in Buenos Aires have gone. "You know, the blacks used to think that they were the natives, and we were immigrants."
The disdain of the native Indians is a constant theme among Argentines. When reporters covering the Falklands-Malvinas crisis question the Buenos Aires man in the street for his views on the war, one of his often quoted remarks is, "We are not Indians" -- meaning that they are made of superior stuff and that the British will find out that Argentines are tough and hardy Europeans. After all, they defeated the British three times in the 19th century; they have won every war they have fought, including the 1976-79 campaign against Marxist guerrillas; they are even the world's foremost soccer and polo players.
Yet Argentine pride does not preclude going hat in hand to the disdained so-called nonaligned nations of the Third World, meeting in Havana last week. The Argentines sought support for their claim on the Falklands when it appeared that their forces faced certain, and perhaps humiliating defeat at the hands of the British in the dirty little war for the desolate archipelago they have dubbed the Malvinas.
The irony of this eleventh-hour diplomatic and propaganda overture was that Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez, a typical patrician who has repeatedly said that "surrender" is not in his vocabulary, recently aroused the ire of the very people he went to woo by stating categorically that Argentina's economy placed it above the ranks of the Third World.
This perception of racial superiority and purity is actually unfounded, and most other Latin Americans know this. It is true that in the brutal 19th century war against the Indians of the pampas, the Argentines virtually liquidated the native tribes and seized the rich land that became the source of Argentina's fabulous agricultural wealth. But there is a strong strain of Indian blood in the warmer northern provinces of Tucum,an and Mendoza, where Spaniards and Indians intermarried back in the 16th and 17th centuries, and where the mestizos today tell of their despair in haunting melodies played with drums and guitar.
Argentines, particularly the porte?nos or residents of Buenos Aires, the almost European city on the River Plate where one-third of the country's population of 28 million lives and works, ignore this beautiful music and its meaningful lyrics. They prefer the maudlin strains of the tango, the European import derived from the apache dances of Marseilles that became popular in the bordellos of Buenos Aires earlier this century and gained such a worldwide following abroad that the pope was asked to determine whether the dance was immoral.
Apart from the Indo-Hispanics of the north, most of Argentina's old patrician families have the blood of the almost white Guaran,i Indi the West Bans of Paraguay in their veins. It is no secret that the conquistadores who founded Argentina and settled Buenos Aires for the Spanish empire took Guarani women for concubines. Their handsome progeny, who look like no other Indo-Hispanic people, are found not only in Argentina, but in Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.
Argentines also tend to look down on Brazil, their rivals for big power status in South America, and deride it as a "black African nation" where the people speak Portuguese. An Argentine editor who is an acute student of his country and Brazil, and who would not like to be quoted by name, says, "Look, we're helping the Brazilians develop atomic power. They are backward, a true Third World nation because of the race mixture. We're different; that's why we're better."
The intense ethnocentrism of the Argentines is aignificant factor in the nationalism that has led them to fight the British for the Falklands. It is a peculiar form of nationalism, which is expressed not in terms of excellence in native art, music and science, but in external things such as an imagined racial purity and extravagant and outmoded Roman Catholic traditionalism, a fanatic militarism that excludes dissent and punishes dissenters as tainted and a sense that foreigners, particularly the Anglo-Saxons, have somehow thwarted Argentina's past greatness.
It is ironic that the recent wooing of the Argentine junta by the Reagan administration for military help against Central American Marxist guerrillas appears to have influenced Argentine determination to even the score with the Anglo-Saxon powers and seize the islands by force. Argentines admire the tricky tactics of the vivo, the wise guy who gets his way by hook or by crook. There is a national passion for the vivo, and his devious antics inspired a popular comic strip character called Avivato.
The arrogance and haughtiness of the Argentines is a constant source of racial, political and economic friction with the rest of Latin America. The Argentines reject any notion that Argentina is a Third World country. They see their country as a potential power that should have influence not only in Latin America but throughout the world.
Back before World War I, Argentina did appear to be on its way to power and influence, because of its wealth and its highly educated people. Argentines then flocked to Europe, and sent their children to France, England and Switzerland for their education.
To this day, the men dress in the English fashion, and the women, when they can afford it, in the best that the haute couture of Paris has to offer. The elite built the Teatro Col,on, one of the finest opera houses in the world, and established publishing houses that still turn out the best in world literature in translation. Argentine intellectuals move in the most advanced literary circles in Paris, London, New York and Rome, and they continue to introduce Argentina to the latest artistic, literary and philosophic trends.
But Argentina -- which at the turn of the century had become a haven for immigrants from Italy, Spain, France, Poland, Yugoslavia and Ireland, and Eastern European and Sephardic Jews in search of a home -- depended on its export trade with the British Empire in its heyday.
When England began its long economic decline, Argentina felt the pinch and Argentines, despite their vaunted qualities, were unable to make the country work. The military took over, and in the '30s the ideas of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco began to gain currency, paving the way for the dictatorship of Juan Domingo Peron and his wife Evita that began in 1945.
The Peronistas preached something called justicialismo, which combined rapid, state- controlled industrialization with social welfare and which split the country into opposing classes: the haves, mostly Anglophiles and Francophiles, and the have-nots, mostly workers. The end of agricultural primacy, which had come earlier, had created an urban class that could not be controlled by the old oligarchy and the tradest Bition of military rule which was looking for a leader to champion their cause. Peron became their jefe, and to this day remains a hero for at least 30 percent of the electorate.
Yet Argentines cannot to this day believe that their prosperity has ended. They blame their bad luck on Peron, on Evita, on the United States and, most of all, on Britain, which, after all, had built the railroads that made Argentina's agriculture thrive, had introduced the cattle that made Argentina a great beef producer, and which defeated the fascist model Argentina had adopted in World War II.
After World War II, when Argentina was rich again with war profits, Peron courted the rest of Latin America with promises of loans that never materialized. Yet he remains one of the few Argentine political leaders to have cultivated the tropicales, as Argentines call all the people who live between C,ordoba and the Rio Grande: Peron opposed U.S. intervention in Guatemala in 1954 and he supported Panama's claims on the Canal Zone. His ambassadors caused trouble for the United States throughout the hemisphere.
The failure of Argentine leaders to make the country function despite its basic natural wealth and underpopulation, the class conflicts unleashed by Peronist rule, the East- West conflict and, most of all, the change in the world's trade patterns made Argentina even more withdrawn and drove Argentines to adopt even more extreme forms of what they called the old virtues of the criollo (the white-born in the country), to prove that Argentina is not another tinhorn banana republic, that they are not tropicales.
The result of this withdrawal has been catastrophic. Not only did it lead to terrorism and guerrilla war, but to galloping inflation, and to emigration from a country that was once a mecca for millions who wanted a home and a chance for prosperity in the New World. Argentines who once had hopes have lost them, and many have gone to the United States, to France, to Spain and even to Italy to start new careers.
The Argentine community in the U.S., which has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, has a strong aversion to being classed by newspapers and officials as "Hispanics," lumped in with Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Cubans. "We don't belong in the same sack," remarked an Argentine doctor.
This haughtiness and arrogance in the face of dismal failure grates on other Latin Americans, who make fun of the way Argentines talk (ya, Spanish for "now," is pronounced zha only in Argentina) and of the way they give common words different meanings. In Argentina, for instance, a gringo is not an American, he's an Italian.
Many Latin Americans support Argentina in the South Atlantic war, but it is more for regional political reasons, for a chance to embarrass the United States, than for any great sense of sympathy for the Argentines. A number of Latin American diplomats have told me, in effect: Look, this thing gives us leverage with the U.S. Why do you think Panama is backing them? The Panamians see concessions in the canal. Fidel Castro sees support on Guantanamo which is occupied by the U.S., and Venezuela and Guatemala have territorial claims on former English possessions.
Argentines, when they're not boasting that they are the world's soccer champions, that women swoon at their feet, that they excel at polo, that they are on the verge of becoming a nuclear power and can fight with the fierceness of gauchos, can be charming and discerning, often erudite and worldly, and given to the sad irony of people who once had great dreams. Buenos Aires is a great, pleasant and elegant city, filled with wonderful surprises, parts of it bits of Italy, other parts bits of suburban England, parts French and Spanish. But few portenos will admit the existence of the dismal slums, the villas miseria that encircle this sprawling city.
The lack of humility and the refusal to accept any shortcomings leads many Latin Americans to quote an old Spanish saying: "If you want to make a quick profit buy an Argentine for what he's worth and sell him for what he says he's worth."