This month marks the 25th anniversary of President Kennedy's speech inaugurating the Alliance for Progress. The Alliance's vision for Latin America was a democratic, socially progressive, economically dynamic one, which would inoculate the area against the Castro infection. Conceived as a 10-year program, the Alliance was staggered by a spate of military takeovers in 1963 and 1964, by Kennedy's assassination and by the U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965. By the end of the '60s, it was essentially dead. Puerto Rican Operation Bootstrap architect Teodoro Moscoso, first U.S. corrdinator of the Alliance, wrote its epitaph:

". . . just as no human being can save another who does not have the will to save himself, no country can save others no matter how good its intentions or how hard it tries. The Latin American countries have been too dependent on the United States, while the United States has been too nosey and eager to force down the throats of its southern neighbors its way of doing things."

The achievements of the Alliance were not insignificant, particularly in education and health, and also in economic growth, which approximated the 2.5 percent per capita annual Alliance target well into the '70s. The Alliance also reinforced the beleaguered democratic currents in Latin America that have led to the recent hopeful democratization trends. But authoritarian military governments dominated politics until recently, and the distribution of income, wealth and land in most countries continues to be skewed heavily toward the few who are rich and powerful.

The success of the Marshall Plan was the measure of the shortfall of the Alliance. To understand this shortfall, one must ask several uncomfortable questions that derive from the vastdifferences in political, economic and social progress between Latin America on the one hand and the United States and Canada on the other:

Why is the average North American 15 to 20 times better off economically than the average Latin American?

Why are income, wealth and land far more equitably distributed in the United States and Canada than in Latin America?

Why are proportionally so many more North Americans literate than Latin Americans?

Why are democratic political institutions, due process and civilian control of the military so deeply rooted in the United States and Canada, and so rare in Latin America?

Why does the typical Latin American chief of state -- and I hasten to acknowledge that there are exceptions -- leave office vastly richer than when he entered?

In the early '60s many of us explained these dramatic contrasts by U.S. neglect of Latin America. Without questioning our assumption of responsibility for the destiny of others, we prescribed a large dose of Yankee ingenuity and resources. Most Latin Americans endorsed this prescription, notwithstanding its strong implication of Latin American impotence, at least partly because it did not force Latin Americans to look inward for explanations of Latin America's condition.

The search for external causes reached its pinnacle with the dependency theory vogue, which first appeared in the '60s and is still with us. It really wasn't neglect by the United States; it was exploitation by the United States, which made itself rich by keeping Latin America poor. The United States allegedly bought Latin America's primary products cheaply while charging high prices for its manufactured exports. Meanwhile, U.S. investors were allegedly reaping unconscionable profits from their investments in Latin America.

Dependency theory is an intellectual construct that doesn't hold water and leads Latin America down a dead-end street. Some of the evidence that it is largely mythical:

*The United States, Canada and Australia all developed rapidly and democratically during the 19th century as exporters of primary products and recipients of large infusions of foreign investment. Today, the United States is the world's largest exporter of primary products.

*Foreign trade and foreign investment represent a small fraction of the U.S. economy, which may be the most self-sufficient in the world, at least among the advanced countries. For example, the total effective demand of the five Central American countries for U.S. products approximates that of Springfield, Mass.

*Trade with and investment in Latin America represent a small fraction of the U.S. total worldwide. The bulk of both is with Western Europe, Canada and Japan. For example, the United States trades more with and invests more in Canada than all of Latin America.

*There is evidence that Latin American countries with relatively more U.S. investment (Costa Rica, for example) have done better than those with relatively less (such as Nicaragua). There is also evidence that Latin American businessmen have taken substantially more out of their countries than have foreign businessmen, both in higher profit margins and capital flight.

Most people agree that Latin America's resource endowment is at least comparable to that of Canada and the United States. If dependency theory is largely a myth, how else can we explain the striking discrepancy in political, economic and social progress? What really explains why the Alliance for Progress foundered?

After 25 years working on Latin America's development problems, I am convinced that it is the way Latin Americans see the world -- their values and attitudes -- that are the principal obstacle to progress in Latin America. Those values and attitudes derive from traditional Hispanic culture, which nurtures authoritarianism, an excessive individualism, mistrust, corruption and a fatalistic world view, all of which work against political pluralism and economic and social progress. That culture also attaches a low value to work, particularly among the elite, and discourages entrepreneurship, thus further braking economic growth.

Culture is not immutable, although it usually changes very slowly. Spain itself may be evolving toward modern western values more rapidly than its former colonies, largely because of its opening to Europe since the mid-'50s. In this hemisphere it is the United States that has played the principal regional role in promoting democratic development, above all by its example but also by its recent policies, including the Alliance for Progress, the Carter administration's emphasis on human rights and the Reagan administration's current emphasis on democratic solutions.

Latin America's future progress will depend importantly on its ability to see itself objectively; to suppress the tendency to seek foreign scapegoats; to work toward the kinds of cultural change that will enhance the prospects for democratic progress; and to assume responsibility for its own future. Those kinds of values and attitudes could perpetuate the current wave of democratization, which we all hope will take root and endure.

But past performance suggests that there are strong cultural currents at work that threaten democratic continuity and economic dynamism. The fatal flaw of the Alliance for Progress was its failure to recognize the force of these currents. The promising crop of Latin American democrats now in power will inevitably get caught up in them.

Simply by surviving and turning over power to a freely elected successor -- a process, for example, that a prominent Nicaraguan oppositionist asserts has never occurred from one party to another in Nicaragua's entire history -- these leaders will have overcome long odds and contributed to changed expectations on the part of their countrymen. But even then, democracy and economic dynamism will be far from ensured. The demise of democracy in Chile and its interruption in Uruguay demonstrate how fragile pluralism is in Latin America, even in societies where it appears deeply rooted.

Enlightened Latin American leaders can make progress on such problems as literacy, health, economic policy and population growth. But they may be able to effect only small changes in the values and attitudes that are the principal obstacles to progress, many of which have endured for almost five centuries. The most important -- and difficult -- challenge to those committed to progress in Latin America is how to accelerate constructive cultural change.