Gringos glance southward to cement regional trade with eager Latin neighbors

THE United States, host of next week's Summit of the Americas, is eager to showcase its hemispheric leadership during a time when the region is coming together.

As never before, countries from Canada to Chile are working toward the same goals of democratization and private-sector development. Popularly elected presidents and privatization have largely replaced the military dictatorships and state-driven economies of the past. The 34 heads of states who will meet in Miami from Dec. 9-11 want a forum in which to gain support for their reforms and improved standards of living.

Washington hopes to use this foundation for its ultimate construction: the most populous and largest free-trade area in history. Conceived by the Bush administration, this idea is now getting a practical push by the Clinton White House.

This is good news for the Latin and Caribbean guests, who are preparing their own agendas for Miami. The top item on their lists: greatly expanded trade and investment ties with the US and a clear indication of how to become free-trade partners.

Even countries clamoring for entrance into the US-Mexico-Canada North American Free Trade Agreement - regarded by many as an exclusive arrangement - are bound to be encouraged by President Clinton's summit announcement that Chile will become a NAFTA member by the end of 1995.

Colombia's Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, newly selected secretary-general of the Organization of American States, echoes a comment often heard among US business and government officials and their Latin counterparts. The Americas, as an eventual free-trade area, are more promising than the much-touted Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group, which captured newspaper headlines during the past month, he says.

While APEC boasts the fastest-growing economies among its members, ``the Americas are much more developed as markets for regional trade and investment,'' Mr. Gaviria says. ``There is a longer experience with trade negotiation.'' He counts 23 trade liberalization agreements, including a Central American pact, an accord among Andean countries, and Caribbean free-trade zones.

The US, the most open economy in the world, stands to gain much from free-trade links with its neighbors to the south. The region, debt-distressed in the 1980s and a place where US banks were saddled with bags of bad loans, has become a magnet for US exporters and investors.

Today, Latin markets are the fastest growing for US goods and services, and Yankee exports to Latin America have doubled over the last five years.

Inter-American Development Bank President Enrique Iglesias views the emergence of subregional trade groups as necessary steppingstones toward a free-trade zone for the Americas.

But if the US insists on linking environmental and labor standards to a trade accord, it will be viewed as protectionist and force sizable economies such as Brazil to turn inward, warns a top White House official.

That would risk limiting economic growth, which enables nations to confront some of the problems that transcend borders and require regional cooperation: immigration, drug trafficking, organized crime, and environmental degradation.

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