The White House took an important step toward reenergizing US policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean when it submitted fast-track legislation to Congress last week.
If passed, the legislation will give President Clinton - like his predecessors over the past several decades - the authority to negotiate international trade pacts that Congress must consider in an expedited fashion, and can approve or reject, but not amend. The no-amendment procedure is essential for serious trade deals because it assures our partners that the US Congress will not be allowed to rewrite concluded agreements in order to satisfy multitudinous special interests.
The administration's proposal for fast track is well-crafted and Congress should quickly approve it.
For most governments of Latin America and the Caribbean, fast-track approval is the acid test of the US commitment to hemispheric free trade and stronger economic cooperation with the region. With fast track, the US will be able to proceed with a free-trade pact with Chile, fulfilling a commitment made more than three years ago at the first Summit of the Americas in Miami. The US will also gain the credibility it needs to engage the other nations of the hemisphere in free trade discussions. Fast track is essential for the successful launch of negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, scheduled for next April at the second Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile.
Recognizing that most of the votes for fast track will have to come from Republicans, the President and his advisors tailored their legislation to satisfy GOP demands that trade agreements largely exclude labor and environmental provisions. The administration's proposal has attracted some Republican criticism even though it limits fast-track treatment to issues that have a direct bearing on trade matters. True, the bill does make protection of workers' rights and the environment a goal and suggests the US will promote increased attention to these matters in international organizations. But this language does not give the White House any additional negotiating authority. This is a bill designed to appeal to the Republican majority.
That is why most Democrats will oppose the legislation, arguing that it fails to protect workers or the environment.
But anyone who cares about these issues should think twice before rejecting the President's proposal.
There is no chance that Congress will approve a fast-track bill that allows the US to use trade agreements to enforce labor or environmental standards.
Derailing the current fast-track initiative will not produce a better initiative; it will lead to none at all. There will be no new US trade pacts in the hemisphere - and no new agreements on workers' rights or ecological protection. It is only with the approval of fast track that the US can credibly exercise leadership in seeking regional agreements on these issues.
Everyone loses if fast track is defeated and the US is unable to negotiate hemispheric free-trade agreements. The nations of Latin America and the Caribbean will be denied the opportunity to gain secure, long-term access to the US market - which is the first or second most important market for nearly every country of the region. The region will also attract less foreign investment - from the US and elsewhere - than it would with a hemispheric free-trade pact in place. Less trade and less foreign investment will mean slower growth and fewer jobs in the region, and more poverty. This will not help Latin America's workers or its environment.
The defeat of fast track will also be costly to the US. Latin America already absorbs 15 percent of US exports, and the region is the fastest growing market for North American products - with 40 to 50 cents of every dollar Latin America spends on imports going to US companies.
IF current trends continue, Latin America will soon be a larger consumer of US imports than Europe and Japan combined. Further, Latin American and Caribbean cooperation on many other fronts - the defense of democracy and human rights, anti-drug initiatives, environmental protection, collaboration in international forums - depends on stronger trade ties, the region's first priority in its relations with the US.
The White House has sent the right fast-track proposal to Congress. An intense campaign, led by the president, is now required to gain prompt legislative approval. Nothing would do more to buttress US-Latin American ties and ensure a successful visit by President Clinton to South America next month and a productive inter-American Summit in April 1998.
* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.