In view of recent events in South Korea and earlier events in the Philippines and Haiti, Americans are newly optimistic that leverage can be used to promote political pluralism and civilian democracy in friendly authoritarian regimes. Proponents of such activism think that moving swiftly during a political crisis will prevent radical, pro-communist revolutions. This "good" or benevolent intervention is perceived to be in the best interest of the United States, even if it means disappointing a former ally or pressuring a longtime friend.

Panama now seems to offer Congress and the Reagan administration a perfect testing ground to take this "good" intervention approach to Latin America. Following demonstrations against the country's strong-man ruler, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Senate and the House approved resolutions demanding a return to civilian control in Panama and an investigation into widely believed charges of murder and corruption leveled against Noriega by a former military associate.

Contrary to hopes in Washington, strong U.S. criticism of Noriega has awakened profound suspicion of America's motives among Panamanians and Latin Americans in general and has handed the discredited general a timely pretext to shore up his defense using nationalistic themes. Though street protests against the general continue, Noriega's criticism of American intervention has put the opposition leadership on the defensive regarding the nation's pride and Panamanian sovereignty.

In the hemisphere, U.S. attacks on Noriega have provoked a rare display of unity among Latin American governments. A July 1 vote in the Organization of American States dramatically illustrated the isolation of American foreign policy in the region. At Panama's request, a resolution condemning U.S. intervention in its internal affairs was prepared by Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Nicaragua. In a roll call with no recent precedent in that organization, 17 nations -- including Chile, Ecuador and Jamaica -- voted in favor of the resolution. Only the United States voted no. Even staunch U.S. allies such as El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Grenada felt it necessary to abstain from voting or to be absent from the session.

Why is the anti-Noriega policy of the United States in Panama so unappealing everywhere in the hemisphere?

The answer is certainly not the popularity of the Panamanian general, whose image in Latin America is that of a "loose cannon" incapable of loyalty to any cause but his own. Nor is the answer that Latins do not care if Panamanians fulfill their democratic ambitions. The problem is simply the credibility of the United States -- or perhaps the lack of it.

Latin Americans do not believe that a good cause makes American intervention in any hemispheric country a "good" intervention. The historical record of abusive U.S. interventions in Latin America and the overriding power imbalance between the United States and its neighbors give nonintervention a very precise legal, diplomatic and political meaning to Latin Americans. We Latins believe that altruistic causes such as "democracy" and "freedom" and even economic assistance are often mere pretexts to hide illegitimate purposes. At best, many Latin Americans believe that intervention -- even in a good cause -- involves such abuses of power and violations of sovereign rights that it soon becomes an aggression.

No government in Latin America will sanction a precedent that later could be used against it. Dictators like Augusto Pinochet in Chile do not want Washington to take up the cause of democracy in their countries. But other leaders with more legitimate concerns defend nonintervention as a question of principle.

Nothing has contributed more in recent years to promote Latin suspicions than the Reagan administration's unyielding support for the Nicaraguan contras. The clear objective of contra aid, as Latins see it, is to overthrow a government the United States does not like but with whom it has diplomatic relations. Obviously this is a quite unacceptable proposition to any poorer, weaker neighbor. Even Latins who do not like the Sandinistas and would prefer to see them turned out of power find the American replacement -- a rebel force funded and controlled by the CIA -- as bad as could be.

Antipathy to revolutionary Nicaragua in many countries of Central and Latin American does not translate into enthusiasm for the contra cause. Few American commentators have tried to explain why no president, major politician or visible intellectual of Latin America has put himself or herself on the record endorsing contra aid. Many have criticized harshly the Sandinistas and prized the internal opposition, but none has spoken in favor of the contras. To support the contras is to endorse CIA-sponsored intervention. No Latin American preoccupied with his or her personal reputation can favor such a policy.

In Latin culture, to trust is to share. But the United States has made no effort whatever to include Latin American concerns, ideas and feelings in its policy processes. Instead, the Reagan administration adopted the patronizing view that Washington knows best what will cure Latin ailments. When the eight most important countries of the region assembled in Contadora to say no to contra aid and to propose broad-based negotiations as an alternative to military solutions -- or when a long-time friend such as Costa Rica proposed the same thing -- the administration ignored them or called them naive. If the U.S. government does not trust our judgment, why should we Latins trust yours?

American credibility in Latin America will not be rebuilt by theories of "good" intervention. Instead, Washington must shed its chronic derision of Latin American opinion and learn to trust -- and to use -- the political advice of its neighbors. Today, "good" U.S. intervention in Latin America remains no intervention at all.

The writer, a professor and political commentator in Mexico, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.