PRESIDENT BUSH'S recently concluded five-country swing through Latin America underscores the vexing nature of the international debt problem. Departing for home from Venezuela, the president left a developing world that is $24 billion behind in interest payments to commercial banks. That's triple the size of interest arrears in existence when Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady launched his plan for reducing Third World debt in March of 1989. Today, Latin America's total foreign debt of $429 billion is virtually unchanged from the pre-Brady plan 1988 level of $428 billion. These trends hardly represent the sort of relief debtor nations had hoped for. But neither is it accurate to conclude that the plan has failed to achieve any significant progress. In reality, the results to date fall far short of the expectations raised by the Treasury Department last year, but somewhat better than the fate predicted by skeptics who regarded the plan as long on promises and rhetoric and little else. The five nations on the president's itinerary, provide the most vivid illustrations of the practicality of the debt reduction strategy when nations undertake serious economic reform and are willing to negotiate with official and commercial creditors, and the complications and stalemates that result when they do not.

During stops in heavily indebted Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela, three countries that are pursuing major economic reform and restructuring programs, the Bush administration could point to new Brady plan agreements with bank creditors -- accords leading to significant principal and interest payment reductions as well as the infusion of new loans. Uruguay's progress makes it a likely candidate to become the first beneficiary of the new debt reduction financing arrangement with the InterAmerican Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund under the administration's Enterprise for the Americas Initiative. Venezuela's recently concluded bank financing agreement is expected to result in a 20 percent reduction in debt stock and up to a 50 percent reduction in interest payment during the next five to seven years. Chile stands on the verge of being graduated from the list of troubled debtors on the strength of a remarkable debt reduction effort and much strengthened economic performance.

But the lack of headway with Brazil and Argentina, two other countries on Mr. Bush's itinerary -- and holders of nearly 40 percent of the Third World's debt and more than 60 percent of its interest arrears -- could mark a point of regression on the debt strategy. Brazil's interest payments have been overdue since mid-1989, and dialogue with the international financial community is in just about the same shape. Argentina, close to $8 billion in arrears, has started repaying smaller amounts, and with an aggressive privatization effort it is making some progress toward a market-based economy -- important steps toward the restoration of international credibility. Reportedly during visits to both countries, President Bush -- and Secretary Brady in separate meetings with his counterparts -- stressed the importance of both nations regularizing their external arrangements and continuing programs of economic reform.

As brought home by the president's trip, the debt trauma continues to weigh heavily on Latin economies and key popularly elected governments, all of which are fragile. It's far too early to render a final judgment as to whether these democracies or the Brady debt relief strategy will survive -- since both desperately require capital and sustained political support -- but at this stage their fates seem inextricably intertwined.