Rosalynn Carter departs Monday on a two-week goodwill tour of seven Latin American countries that the administration selected carefully in order to make specific points about U.S. foreign policy.
The First Lady's tour, which the White House calls "substantive" as well as ceremonial, is laced with potential diplomatic landmines and is viewed with polite skepticism in some of the nations she will visit.
For instance, in Brazil some officials were "almost offended" to learn that President Carter was sending his wife to hold serious talks with government leaders, said Roberto Garcia, a journalist here who represents the Brazilian newwsweekly, Veja.
"They say that for years Latin America has been in the backyard of U.S. foreign policy, and now we're being promoted to the kitchen," Garcia said.
Last week a Latin American diplomat here (not from Brazil) told a reporter is was "absurd" to think that a woman, particularly one with no expertise, could hold substantitive discussions on hemispheric problems.
However, the White House and State Department are brushing aside the machismo complaints. One official noted that the Latin American leaders whom Mrs. Carer will meet "are sophisticated people. They know that women are assuming high roles in the United States, and they know that she is very close to him (the President).
"She can present her and his views with great authority and credibility and, therefore, she can set a framework for much future negotiation."
To allay misgivings, White House and State Department officials have spent days discussing her visit with Latin American leaders here and in the Southern Hemisphere. Mrs. Carter has met with the ambassadors representing hte countries she will tour.
To prepare for the trip she has taken Spanish lessons three days a week since February and in the last month she has been briefed by 40 experts on Latin America in 13 sessions lasting two to five hours each.
She is no stranger to Latin America. In 1972 she went to Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Colombia with her husband when he was governor of Georgia. In 1973 she went to Brazil as part of a Georgia delegation on a people-to-people visit, and last December she went to Mexico for the inauguration of its president, Jose Lopez Portillo.
On her 12,000-mile trip, Mrs. Carter will fly to Jamaica, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.
The countries were chosen because some are democracies with long ties of friendship to the United States and some are military regimes that have democratic elements.
Part of Mrs. Carter's mission will be to stress two points the President made in addresses to the Organization of American States April 14 and at Notre Dame University May 22 - America's commitment to human rights and its "basic optimism" about the future of democratic governments.
Jamaica, which became independent of Great Britain in 1962, is the second (to cuba) most important country in the Caribbean. It has a democratic, socialist government, a 25 per cent unemployment rate and a stagnant economy. Its prime minister, Michael Manley, had strained relations with the Ford administration but has referred to President Carter as a second Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mrs. Carter has been advised to renew friendly relations but to avoid raising Jamaican expectations unduly with regard to foreign aid. Carter has proposed a $10 million loan, but it has run into trouble in Congress.
Costa Rica, a long-standing ally of the United States, is a healthy Central American democracy that wants to increase beef exports to the United States. Mrs. Carter is expected to visit the nation's Electoral Tribunal, which supervises Costa Rican elections and campaignn finances.
She is not expected to bring up the touchy subject of Robert L. Vesco, the U.S. financier who has lived in Costa Rica nearly five years avoiding prosecution in New York on federal charges of fraud and obstructing justice in a securities case.
Ecuador, a rightist military regime on the West Coast of South America, is run by a junta that is committed to a policy of "retorno," a return to civilian rule. The regime is considered unstable, and Mrs. Carter's main effort will be to encourage the returno effort.
Peru, a leftist military regime, has a socialized economy and, like Ecuador, a deep respect for human rights. Mrs. Carter's purpose there will be to demonstrate that the United States welcomes diversity in governments and wants to work with the Peruvian leaders.
Brazil, the largest and most important country she will visit, also has a military regime. Until recently it had seemed to improve its protection of human rights. Last week reports from Recife, where Mrs. Carter will stay June 8, said two clerics had been detained and beaten by police.
Patt Derian, the State Department's human rights coordinator, said that in Brazil Mrs. Carter "will speak seriously about this country's concern for human rights."
Brazilian leaders have been angerred by President Carter's so-far-unsuccessful efforts to stop West Germany from selling their country a nuclear reprocessing plant. They also wonder initiated by former Secretary of State what happened to the understanding Henry A. Kissinger last year that the United States had a special relationship with Brazil. Mrs. Carter is expected to insist that the relationship still exists and to try to get a new dialogue going between the countries.
Colombia is a democracy that has a shaky economy bouyed recently by high prices for coffee exports. Mrs. Carter is expected to voice support for its democratic efforts and to discus economic assistance.
Venezuela, the continent's only other democracy, sells more than 1 million barrels of oil to the United States each day. It has been irritated by a 1974 law passed by Congress that excluded Venezuela and Ecuador from special U.S. import advantages for manufactured goods from less developed countries.
Congress applied the exclusion to all members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in retaliation for the 1973-1974 oil embargo. But Venezuela and Ecuador, which are OPEC members, did not keep oil from the United States and, in fact, increased oil shipments to this country.
Mrs. Carter is not expected to deal with the trade exemption issue but is expected to praise that nation's aggressive defense of human rights in the hemisphere.