If President Carter accomplished nothing else on his first official trip to Latin America, with brief stops in Venezuela and Brazil, he went a long way toward convincing the leaders of those countries that they could deal with the United States as equals.
From the Latin point of view, the deferential tone that the president struck, particularly in Brazil, was almost enough to make up for a near total lack of substance in trip results.
Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez ended up with little in the way of new, concrete U.S. proposals to help the developing world with its economic problems. But Carter's presence there and constant praise of bothe Perez and Venezuelan democracy paid back in some measure Perez' strong support on nuclear and human rights issues.
In Brazil, where officials pointed out the visit was Carter's idea, and not theirs, the initial reception was somewhat chilly.
It warmed considerably after Carter told Brazilian President Ernesto Geisel that his purpose was to "reaffirm what (is) constant in our relationship, and to adapt to what (is) changed and new."
That meant a public reaffirmation of the memorandum of understanding signed by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, giving Brazil a "special relationship" with the United States.
The Brazilians had accused Carter of forgetting that Brazil is the largest and most important country in Latin America. The president's relationship with Brazil until this visit had been been dominated by American criticism of its nuclear reprocessing program and human rights abuses.
Apparently, Carter realized that Brazil was not going to bend, and that it made a better friend than enemy. Thus, after a year of beating his head against a wall of Brazilian intransigence on both subjects, Carter merely mentioned them, restated the U.S. position, and announced that he would "adapt."
While noting that the United States reserves the "right to express our opinion" that Brazil should give up plans to build a nuclear reprocessing plant, Carter said "we have no authority over Brazil...nor do we want any."
Throughout a number of U.S. administrations, an obstacle to developing a policy toward Latin America has been the fact that the Latins have neither the power nor the inclination to seriously upset or challenge their huge northern neighbor.
At the same time, they have a substantial trade relationship with the United States and close geographical and historical ties. The situation is tailor-made for the kind of unrequited Latin hopes and casual U.S. dominance that have characterized U.S.-Latin relationships in varying degrees from the Monroe Doctrine through the "good neighbor" Carter program.
Latin America has always aroused a vague sense of guilt in the United States. There is general agreement that the United States should have some sort of coherent policy for so close and basically friendly a neighbor, but good intentions to develop and implement one have fallen victim to the lack of a sense of urgency and interest, or the interventionist by-products of the cold war.
For Carter, while he early expressed an interest in a new relationship with Latin America, positive policy has taken a back seat to highly publicized criticism of human rights abuses.
A step in the right direction was taken when Carter, acting on Perez' advice, invited Latin leaders to Washington to witness the signing last September of the Panama Canal treaties. A primarily bilateral event gained multilateral points.
Even that action provoked a substantial backlash, however, when the human rights policy conflicted with the hosting of Latin dictators.
The Latin American trip was Carter's first chance to put some teeth in his expressed good intentions for a new Latin American poilcy based on equality and mutual respect.
By choosing Venezuela and Brazil as his objectives, he accomplished the joint purpose or congratulating a democratic government, and recognizing a powerful one.
Those gestures were properly appreciated, but the question now remains as to what Carter can actually do for the Latins once the shouting dies down. Perez, while making it clear that he feels a close personal friendship to Carter, pulled no punches in his demands for "actions, not words."
The Venezuelan president repeatedly has called for definitive U.S. action in altering the world economic balance toward a system that favors the industrialized countries less. Past attempts to accomplish that, he said, have fallen victim to political considerations in those countries.
Specifically, Carter administration officials on the trip criticized the Latin use of Third World economic, rhetoric, and noted that the president, restricted by "domestic political considerations," has done just about all he can for the moment to lower U.S. tariffs, increase aid and to address cancellation of portions of the Third World debt.
Carter publicly told Perez and Geisel that "nations with wealth to share have an obligation to share it," but offered few new U.S. plans to do so.
While a number of new psychological bridges were built, Carter left the Latins with a lingering apprehension, based on decades of experience, that the new hopes he raised will be as unfulfilled as all the others.