THE BIGGEST obstacle to progress in Latin America is not Yankee imperialism but Latin culture.

After working on Latin American problems for two decades with the Agency for International Development, I have seen how poorly Latin culture treats its citizens, compared to the United States and other Western democracies. I have also come to reject what's known as "dependency theory," which blames the United States for the poverty, tyranny and chaos to the south. Instead, I believe that Latin underdevelopment is largely a state of mind: the Latin mind.

My conclusions go down hard with many people. I have been jeered at Harvard, been called a racist in a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations and been labeled by students a "Helms Republican." (I am a lifelong Democrat.)

I can understand the passion of their convictions -- I once agreed with many of their views. When I started my career in AID in 1962 -- the early years of the Alliance for Progress -- I was convinced that Latin America was in trouble principally because of U.S. neglect and that a combination of money, Yankee ingenuity and good intentions would transform the countries there to rapidly-developing, vigorous democracies in a decade or two -- despite a history of almost five centuries of dictatorship and chaos since the Spanish colonialists had arrived.

By the middle '60s, the Alliance was staggering after a spate of Latin military overthrows, the assassination of President Kennedy and our Dominican intervention. Teodoro Moscoso, the architect of Puerto Rico's Operation Bootstrap and the first, and most optimistic and enthusiastic, U.S. coordinator of the Alliance for Progress, wrote its obituary a few years later:

"The Latin-American case is so complex, so difficult to solve, and so fraught with human and global danger and distress that the use of the word 'anguish' is not an exaggeration. The longer I live, the more I believe that, 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."

I was arriving at the same conclusion, after several years of trying to help the Dominican Republic glue itself back together following the 1965 civil war. I was dimly conscious that something was going on in the minds of Dominicans that was getting in the way of progress. To be sure, our efforts were helping the country to move into a period of unprecedented democratic continuity and economic growth. But I left the Dominican Republic anxious about the depth and durability of that progress.

I was unable at the time to define these inner obstacles. To some extent, they were captured in a conversation in 1968 between Dominican President Joaquin Balaguer and then Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach. Balaguer, who has just been elected to a fourth term after eight years out of office, had a reputation for impeccable honesty and hard work. He dedicated virtually all of his waking hours to his job, much of that time spent personally approving virtually every expenditure made in the Dominican government, where the level of corruption traditionally has been high.

When Katzenbach called on Balaguer after a loan-signing ceremony, Balaguer complained about the long hours he had to dedicate to his job: "I have to spend 17 hours a day, seven days a week running this small country. How is it humanly possible for President Johnson to run the United States?"

Two years later, while working for the second time in Costa Rica, I wrote an article, "Waking from the Pan American Dream," that was published in "Foreign Policy." It included the following:

"The differences between North America and Latin America are enormous, covering virtually all aspects of human life. The North American and the Latin American have differing concepts of the individual, society, and the relationship between the two; of justice and law; of life and death; of government; of the family; of relations between the sexes; of organization; of time; of enterprise; of religion; of morality. These differences have contributed to the evolution of societies which are more unlike one another than our past policymakers appear to have appreciated. In fact, it can be argued that there are some Asian societies (Japan is an obvious candidate) which have more in common with the societies of North America than do most of the societies of Latin America."

I was not fully aware of it at the time, but I had collided with two powerful and mutually-reinforcing intellectual currents: dependency theory and cultural relativism.

Dependency theory asserts that the United States has gotten rich buying Latin America's raw materials cheap, selling manufactured goods dear and milking its investments in Latin America. "Dependency" dominated academic thinking about Latin America -- here, in Latin America and in Europe -- during the '70s. Its intellectual appeal was vastly reinforced by the guilt indulged in by so many Americans during and after the Vietnam War. It is still with us.

The facts simply do not support dependency theory. I won't go into the full analysis here, but to suggest how largely mythical dependency theory is, I will mention three facts:

Our trade and investment relationships with Western Europe, Japan and Canada are vastly more important than our relationships with Latin America (we trade more with and invest more in Canada than all of Latin America combined);

Our political and economic relationships with Latin America were insignificant prior to 1900, while the patterns of Latin American underdevelopment go back virtually unchanged to the early 19th century as independent countries, and to the 16th century as colonies;

Australia, Canada and the United States all were exporters of raw materials and importers of capital in the 19th century, and it didn't prevent them from becoming affluent, dynamic democracies.

Cultural relativism is a theory to which most cultural anthropologists and many other intellectuals subscribe that asserts that all cultures are of equal value and fulfill roughly the same functions everywhere. Its proponents are not supposed to make value judgments about differing cultures, but that doesn't deter many of them from harboring very negative opinions about the United States, often also reinforced by guilt feelings.

You don't have to live in Latin America very long to appreciate how badly most human beings are treated in comparison with the Western democracies -- and how much nonsense cultural relativism is. I speak now not just of economic opportunity, but also of justice, social responsibility and political participation, rare commodities in most Latin American countries.

The absurdity of cultural relativism became even more patent to me when I was assigned to Haiti in 1977. Haiti is not only the poorest country in the hemisphere, it is also the country where people most mistreat one another. The Duvaliers are typical of an almost unbroken chain of greedy, autocratic Haitian chiefs of state going back to independence in 1804. Moreover, the abuse and exploitation is repeated at virtually every level of Haitian society.

Haiti also brought home the lesson of how religion, a central cultural factor, can create enormous psychological obstacles to progress. Almost all Haitians believe in voodoo, notwithstanding a Roman Catholic veneer. Voodoo is essentially an African religion without ethical content, based on the belief that everything that happens in the world is the consequence of the often-capricious actions of hundreds of spirits.

Voodoo is fundamentally anti-progress. The absence of an ethical system contributes to a high degree of mistrust, anti-social behavior, corruption and fear. A Protestant missionary who spent more than 20 years in a Haitian town has observed that, "If a Haitian steals a jug of milk from my hospital, he feels no shame because he believes he was given the opportunity by the spirits." Voodoo also undermines the idea that human beings can control their destinies, which means the rejection of science and planning.

Shortly before I left Haiti, I had dinner with a black Trinidadian friend who had also spent two frustrating years in Haiti. I observed that the roots of both Haiti's and Trinidad's people were in West Africa, that both had suffered under slavery at about the same time. Yet the indicators of Trinidad's development are so high that they are close to those of developed countries, while Haiti is among the poorest. How did she explain it?

She paused for some time, then replied, in obvious discomfort, "It is very painful for me to say it, but I can think of no other explanation than the British."

By the time I left Haiti, in 1979, I had decided to write a book on the relationship between culture and development. I had arrived at the point where I could now define with some precision several of the principal cultural obstacles that stood in the way of the poor countries in which I had worked:

An authoritarian view of human relationships, manifest in the home, schools, churches, government and business, that recapitulates at all levels the relationship between the caudillo, or autocratic leader, and his obedient followers. There is little room for pluralism, egalitarianism or compromise with this kind of mindset.

Clearly related to this authoritarianism at all levels, a reluctance to think independently, to take initiatives, to run risks and to tolerate dissent. I am convinced that this is why Latin America -- and the Third World in general -- produces a disproportionately small number of entrepreneurs.

The attitude, especially among the elite, that work is bad. Two historical roots are obvious: the conquistadors came to the New World to get rich quick and return to Spain liberated from the need to work; and the systems that effectively enslaved Indians and blacks from the 16th through the 18th century taught master and slave alike that work is a curse.

An excessive individualism that breeds anti-social attitudes and actions. Conspicuous, if minor, public examples are littering and the indisposition to respect waiting lines. I am reminded of an aphorism: "It is not enough for a Spaniard to be guaranteed entrance to heaven; he must also be assured that his neighbor will go to hell."

A radius of trust and identification that seldom extends beyond the family and a tendency to view those outside the family as inconsequential or even hostile. Mistrust thus permeates the Latin society.

Clearly related to the absence of trust and identification, difficulties in organizing and cooperating to achieve a common goal. The fragility and impermanence of many community organizations and cooperatives in Latin America reflect this cultural impediment.

Other ills related to authoritarian views and the absence of trust: abuse of power, the absence of fair play and its judicial counterpart due process, and corruption so deeply ingrained in the society that acts of justice and honesty are often viewed with incredulity.

These are the real forces behind Latin America's historic failure to build stable democracies, to educate its people, to facilitate social mobility and justice, and to create dynamic economies. These are the forces that have been operating with little change since the authoritarian culture of the conquistador displaced the authoritarian culture of the Aztec, the Maya and the Inca in the 16th century. The same forces have been operating, at least until recently, in Spain itself with similarly negative consequences.

I hasten to acknowledge that these kinds of behavior are not unknown in the United States and elsewhere in the Western democracies. But in Latin America, they are commonplace and a major obstacle to democracy and economic progress. In the United States, these kinds of behavior are not an accepted norm. One significant indicator: U.S. presidents do not leave office vastly enriched, as is the case with the typical Latin chief of state. (I also hasten to acknowledge that there are exceptions.)

My last assignment in AID, as director of the mission to the new Sandinista government of Nicaragua, further confirmed my beliefs. What I found in revolutionary Nicaragua was a Marxist restatement of traditional Hispanic culture, along with an avid acceptance of dependency theory.

The nine comandantes all have the caudillo view of power, one that brooks little opposition or dissent. As it was for Trujillo, the Somozas and Batista, and as it is for Fidel Castro, power is indivisible for the Sandinistas.

As committed Marxists, the Sandinistas are troubled by the gross inequities apparent in Nicaragua and by its historic inability to forge a stable, modern society. But as the cause of Nicaragua's tragic history they turn to dependency theory and blame not their own, very Hispanic, view of the world but a foreign devil: the United States. Notwithstanding the fact that U.S. involvement in Nicaragua was not really significant until this century, while the Nicaraguan tragedy dates virtually unbroken from the 16th century, the Sandinistas have concluded that by exorcising the United States, they will assure Nicaragua's place in the sun -- via a Marxist dictatorship. And they are absolutely convinced that theirs is the one true faith.

An anecdote comes to mind. In April of 1980, Alfonso Robelo resigned from the National Reconstruction Junta because of the increasingly authoritarian behavior of the Sandinistas. We in the U.S. embassy were taken aback when the Sandinistas promptly labeled Robelo a traitor -- after all, he had merely resigned, not gone over into armed opposition. (We were worried how Congress would react to this labeling of Robelo because we were fighting to get Congress to pass a special appropriation for Nicaraguan reconstruction.)

I called on the comandante with whom I had the closest relationship, Jaime Wheelock. I expressed concern about Sandinista intolerance of dissent. But I found I could not communicate the idea of dissent, partly because there is no wholly apt Spanish word for it. I then called on an American-educated Nicaraguan minister (who has, by the way, since defected) to make the same case. Even though he knew the English word "dissent," I tried for a long time to explain what the problem was without success. Finally, he beamed and said, "Now I know what you're talking about -- civil disobedience!"

That night I told the story to a bilingual Nicaraguan friend who has a PhD from a prestigious U.S. university. He explained, "You have to understand that most of us have studied in Catholic secondary schools where we learned to equate the idea of dissent with heresy."

When I retired and started work on my book as a visiting scholar at Harvard's Center for International Affairs in 1981, I found that my views electrified academics as if I'd argued that Hitler was a saint, so profound was their commitment to the idea that the United States was responsible for most of Latin America's ills.

When the then-ambassador of Nicaragua to the United States spoke to a cheering crowd at Harvard in December of 1982 and I as a panelist spoke of our very real efforts to build a new relationship with the Sandinistas in the face of their hostility and their abuses of human rights, I was hooted and jeered. (The ambassador, Francisco Fiallos, defected a week later and is now one of the leaders of the contras.)

Some development-assistance professionals have had a mixed reaction to my book, agreeing that culture is the principal explanation for the generally slow progress in the Third World, but worrying that I imply that their work has been in vain or that development assistance is unnecessary, or both.

If I am right that underdevelopment is, above all, a state of mind, then significant, enduring change is likely to occur only from within. It can be helped from the outside, but it can't be initiated and managed from the outside. But that is a far cry from saying that development assistance is unnecessary.

What it does imply is that the array of cultural obstacles to progress should be directly addressed. This is a largely uncharted area, and much research and debate is necessary before effective programs can be mounted. Some possible tools: political leadership, the media, educational reform, religious reform, enlightened management, cooperatives and similar activities that bring people together to achieve common goals, and perhaps above all, better child-rearing practices.

But as long as Latin American intellectuals and politicians, abetted by American intellectuals and politicians, explain Latin America's condition as the result of the Yankee devil, Latin Americans will continue to see themselves as impotent and dependent and will behave accordingly.

Latin America can take charge of its future. But it first has to come to grips with its past.

Lawrence Harrison's book, "Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind -- The Latin American Case," was published last July by Harvard's Center for International Affairs and the University Press of America.