MEXICO CITY — CUBA'S Fidel Castro Ruz dismisses this weekend's Summit of the Americas as nothing but a ``show.'' But perhaps the only hemisphere leader not invited should be excused for his sour grapes.
After all, the same historic event that left Cuba's communist regime a lonely anachronism - the end of the cold war - makes the Miami summit possible and gives it a chance to reach beyond show status and actually accomplish something.
``If just 10 years ago someone had said today we would have a continent of democratically elected governments promoting their economic development through free trade, we would have said it was not possible,'' says Costa Rica's President Jose Maria Figueres Olsen.
The summit, called by United States President Clinton to celebrate and strengthen democracy and market economies throughout the region, is expected to set in motion a loose plan for completion of an Americas free trade agreement by early next century. Mr. Clinton is also expected to use the event as an opportunity to address issues such as poverty, sustainable development, drug trafficking, corruption, and human rights.
Today those topics are seen as having direct impact on the region's prospects for economic growth and democracy.
Even a mention of them by the US a few years ago would have been cause for cries of violated sovereignty. But as Latin American scholar Leopoldo Zea notes, ``The conversion to the concept of interdependence has been as abrupt in this hemisphere as anywhere in the world.''
The hemisphere's last summit was held nearly three decades ago in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Then, the US was most interested in strengthening the region's military dictatorships against the threat of leftist revolution. Reference to any eventual common market of the Americas was quickly lost in a US preoccupation with war in Vietnam.
Canada did not attend that summit, and some Caribbean countries that are now among the 34 nations taking part in the Miami meeting were still colonies. Most economies were highly protectionist fiefdoms where nationalized industries reigned.
Today, by contrast, every Latin American country but four - Mexico, Paraguay, Haiti, and of course Cuba - has experienced a national electoral triumph by its political opposition, according to a study by US Latin American specialists Abraham Lowenthal and Jorge Dominguez.
And on the economic front, the US - watching warily as Western Europe expands its common market and Asia comes on strong - has become more willing to see its hemispheric neighbors as partners in building a powerful trade zone.
The hemisphere is already covered by a web of trade agreements led by the year-old North American Free Trade Agreement and Mercosur - the South American Common Market - which will unite Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay on Jan. 1.
Changes here to stay
Giving the Miami summit particular significance is the growing conviction that the region's political and economic transition, falsely promised so often in the past, is now on solid footing. ``The change is permanent, and not pendular as in past decades,'' asserts Louis Goodman, director of the Latin America democracy project at the American University in Washington.
The end of the cold war indeed played a role in this transition, says Mr. Goodman, because ``it took away the premise for authoritarian regimes.'' But he sees as even more important the advent of instant and global communication technologies.
``People are now much more aware of what is going on in neighboring countries, and technology also makes for quicker responses,'' he says. As an example he points to attempts last year by Guatemala's then-president Jorge Serrano Elias to consolidate power by teaming up with the military to disband Congress. But reaction was swift from Guatemala's neighbors and the Organization of American States in Washington, which is committed to defending members from threats to democratic principles. Mr. Serrano's plan failed.
Two other important factors figure into explaining the hemisphere's drawing together, analysts say. One is the Latin countries' bitter experience over the last decade of watching other regions of the world achieve dazzling economic growth while they wallowed in economic crisis. The other is a changing conception of national sovereignty. As the region strengthens its democracies, it is less threatened by outside intervention.
Latin countries took particular note that, while they suffered the ``lost decade'' of the '80s - during which the continent's debt crisis and Central America's guerrilla wars dashed development hopes - former colonial powers Spain and Portugal were achieving economic ``miracles'' as new participants in Western Europe's common market. Association with other Western European nations also strengthened democratic institutions in the two Iberian countries.
Economic globalization and recognition of heightened interdependence also led to seeing relations with northern developed neighbors, especially the US, in a new light. ``We have experienced an evolution in the concept of sovereignty that allows some of these issues [like corruption and human rights] to be discussed at a level they couldn't have been before,'' Mr. Zea says.
The change is such that Latin leaders themselves are proposing measures that call for increased cooperation. In Miami, Venezuela's President Rafael Caldera Rodriguez will call for tougher regional extradition laws to aid in the battle against corruption, while Colombia's President Ernesto Samper Pizano will request tighter drug-money laundering accords.
A need for partners in trade
Latin America's democratically elected leaders are now in a stronger position to speak to the US as equals, Zea says - especially since they know the US needs the hemisphere's potential market of some 800 million consumers.
Even statistically inconsequential Central America can now make the point that wisdom directs the US to open its markets wider to that region's products. ``Sixty-five percent of Central American and Caribbean trade is with the US, but that amounts to less than 1 percent of US imports,'' President Figueres says. ``Opening up can be relatively painless for the US, but it can pay dividends in greater regional stability and prosperity.''
The forgotten poor
In the end, experts say progress in attaining the goals the Miami summit is to set for the Americas will depend largely on how seriously the hemisphere's crushing poverty is addressed. ``That 62 percent of Latin Americans live in poverty not only limits the creation of a prosperous market of consumers, but also poses a direct threat to maintaining stable democracies,'' says Latin American specialist Adalberto Santana.
``The success of east Asia results from a growing percentage of the population participating in the economy and moving up through education and developing new skills, but right now that's not happening in Latin America,'' American University's Goodman adds. ``That has to change if the ideals of Miami are to be reached.''