New Opportunities for US Policy in Latin America

By , senior fellow of the Inter-American Dialogue, writes regularly on global economics.

HAITI and a few other trouble spots notwithstanding, the major challenge facing President Clinton in Latin America is not resolving old conflicts. It is managing new opportunities for cooperation between the United States and the nations of the region.

During the Bush years, most outstanding clashes between the US and Latin America were muted or resolved. Central America's wars came to an end. The debt crisis receded.

Tensions over drug-trafficking eased. More important, the Bush administration opened the way for a new US economic partnership with Latin America. Free-trade negotiations were initiated with Mexico, and the development of hemisphere-wide free trade was proposed.

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On the political front, the US and Latin American countries joined forces in the Organization of American States (OAS) to protect and promote democracy.

To be sure, the Bush administration's accomplishments were mixed with disappointments: delays in concluding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada; lack of progress in developing regional trade arrangements beyond Mexico or implementing other elements of the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative; freezing of US-Cuba relations in cold-war hostility; increasing disengagement from Central America; and failure of OAS initiatives to restore democratic practice in Haiti and Per u.

Yet, US relations with Latin America are on a sounder footing than at any time in recent memory.

In Latin America, NAFTA is viewed as the crucial test of the Clinton administration's interest in forging constructive ties with the region. Rejection of the accord would be devastating to Mexico, which has the most important relationship with the US among nations in the hemisphere. It would also foreclose prospects of a broader, hemisphere-wide free trade system. Mr. Clinton will have to invest considerable energy and political capital to remedy NAFTA's weaknesses on environmental and labor issues, and then gain congressional ratification. He will also have to work hard to build support for extending the NAFTA arrangements throughout Latin America.

In recent years, the OAS has taken on increased responsibility for organizing inter-American actions to safeguard democratic rule. Clinton and his advisers will have to decide whether they want to fortify the OAS role or reserve greater capacity for independent US initiative. Haiti and Peru are the first tests. The Clinton administration may be tempted to display OAS efforts with more aggressive, unilateral action to resolve the situation in Haiti.

In Peru, where the anti-drug war still holds US priority, the administration could undercut the OAS by moving toward normal relations with the autocratic Fujimori government - or it could seek to strengthen OAS action.

Central Americans are looking to the US to assist the region's political reconciliation and economic reconstruction. The president has to decide whether to reverse the sharp decline in US economic assistance over the past few years or accept a diminished US role in the region.

Cuba presents a different problem. Clinton has to choose whether or not to continue the US approach of the past 30 years or to try to mobilize an international coalition to promote peaceful change and begin bargaining with Cuba.

Decisions also have to be made about international drug policy. The question is whether Clinton will pay attention to the mounting evidence that US anti-drug efforts overseas have no impact on drug problems at home. If he does, funding for anti-narcotics programs in Latin America could usefully be redirected to helping the region's governments resolve their drug problems.

Clinton inherits a well-defined policy agenda for Latin America. One should not expect dramatic turns such as President Carter's emphasis on human rights or President Reagan's anti-communist crusade in Central America. A bipartisan US consensus now exists on the priority issues in US-Latin American relations, and that consensus is shared by most governments in Latin America.

But the fact that the agenda is set does not make the challenges any less difficult or important. The battle for democracy could still be lost; economic progress in the region is by no means assured; cooperation between Latin America and the US remains incipient. The task of the Clinton administration is not to break new ground, but to consolidate and build on what has been accomplished and structure an enduring relationship that serves the interests and values of all Americans, North and South. No previ ous US government has ever come close.

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