Ronald Reagan was much ridiculed for remarking after a trip to South America that one of the things he had discovered was that there are a lot of individual countries here. But on this, my first venture to South America, I am in sympathy of sorts with Mr. Reagan. He and I have been victims of the same North American affliction and I think we are far from being alone. The affliction is a stubborn inability to believe in or acknowledge the actual existence of the place, never mind how much we protest otherwise. This oddity of perception, certainly detected and disliked by many South Americans, is the essential context in which the large disputes between us over Central America, Latin foreign debt and the rest are being conducted, and it surely does not help.

Of course you might not judge that there was any problem at all from the volume of unctuous prose that exists declaring our undying interest in our neighbors to the South, as they are known. But the very unctuousness of the prose should be a tip-off. There is something dutiful and insincere to just about our every utterance on the subject. Generally when you hear a politician announce that there is no more important assignment than the one he is giving to good old JB, you know that JB has just been demoted. Similarly, when you hear about North American devotion to hemispheric concerns you know there is a subtext and that it is the opposite of what is being said.

Two points of intended flattery are invariably made when this is going on. One is that our histories are very much alike, that we share a basic heritage. In regard to Brazil this misperception rests on having noticed that certain phenomena and institutions, from slavery to cowboys and a gold rush and continental exploration and the achievement of political independence from a colonial power, are in both our pasts. But the attempt to give a compliment by likening others to ourselves -- not a winner to begin with -- mainly reveals that we have taken their history, which is dramatically different from our own, no more seriously than we have taken them.

The second point offered is the assurance that South America is of overwhelming importance to us. Yet our actions and words reveal again and again that to the extent this is true it is a literary, theoretical and/or derivative concern we feel. South America has been for many of us less a real place than an idea or a "problem." We see it as a matrix of trouble: communism, terrorism and now the big foreign debts, the raging inflation and worry over whether its governments will meet the conditions for financial viability and international respectability being worked out in a series of distant conference rooms. This is what we conceive when we speak of South America.

What is withheld is recognition -- not diplomatic, but recognition in the sense of crediting the reality of another. And as recognition is a precondition of respect, this is something you hear about endlessly when you are here. I am in fact struck after a week in Brazil by the pervasiveness of concern over how the country and continent are regarded in North America and by a great ambivalence as to how people here wish to be regarded. At the political level this ambivalence is reflected in the argument over whether Brazil should be considered a Third World country or an independent competitor/friend of the United States. This, in turn, reflects an inconsistency one encounters among individuals who one minute depict themselves as maltreated supplicants who are entitled to more from their tormentor in the North and the next as independent operators, equals who are offended by being thought of as Third Worlders or dependents or, somehow, wards of multilateral charity.

Both attitudes, however, clearly provide for resentment at the way the IMF and other external entities at the moment are dictating the terms of what is sound behavior. True, the new government here shows itself eager to persuade the financial heavyweights in the North that it intends to pursue a responsible fiscal course. But still there is discomfort at the familiar bind. For once again a country such as Brazil -- huge, rich, complex, promising, potent and possessed of a great culture -- finds itself reduced in the eyes of its creditors and trading partners to the status of a one-dimensional caricature. It is seen as one of the incorrigibles, an international bad boy -- in short, as always, less a country than a "problem."

My own thought is that it will be the Brazilians themselves, not we, who eventually manage to change the terms of the discussion, if anyone does. For you can sense here in some of the attitude toward the United States a disinclination to accept reality at least equal to our own on the subject of Latin America, and this they can change.

For instance, it is one thing for us to ignore or misread their history, but quite another for them to do it. And yet, in the emphasis on the way this country and others have been exploited by foreign banks and businesses over the years, you can lose sight of the fact that recurrent economic crises have been a prominent feature of their national past, that much of the mismanagement and exploitation of their resources was accomplished by themselves and that until they develop their own consistent idea of how they wish to organize their economy and govern their society these painful and unhappy relationships will persist.

I don't mean to justify the patronizing and infuriating way in which so many of us in North America have dismissed South America as a sort of Invisible Continent. But I do believe that to the extent people here define themselves largely in relation to real and imagined abuses from the North they only perpetuate the mythology, not to mention the hypocrisy where South America is concerned.

Brazil and the other countries here will master their current troubles when they have sought and accepted responsibility for them in their own history. There is every evidence that the potential is here for a recovery and a burst upon the international scene that nobody will be able to ignore. You hear talk of superpower potential, and it is not mad. I think we in the United States will not be the ones who decide to take this part of the world seriously. I think it will happen when countries like Brazil make it happen.