US - as Neighbor - Tries Nice

Clinton heads for Summit of the Americas in Chile this weekend, where US arrives more cooperative than ever.

Forget the big stick. Now it's the soft touch.

For most of this century, the relations of the United States with its Latin neighbors have been characterized by the "big stick" of President Theodore Roosevelt: Unfriendly regimes were toppled and leftist guerrillas were subverted with covert operations planned from Washington employing local soldiers trained on US soil. American corporations operated practically at will in what was considered the US's "backyard."

At the end of the cold war, a "kinder, gentler" rhetoric replaced the big stick. But now signs are multiplying that the US is moving beyond even that rhetoric to actions that portend a new relationship emphasizing shared goals, reciprocal benefit, and mutual respect.

As President Clinton prepares to attend the Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile, this weekend, consider:

In Mexico last week, US drug czar Barry McCaffrey unveiled a new US antidrug strategy based on stepped-up cooperation and the two countries evaluating each others' performance and progress. The former head of the Army Southern Command said the strategy would eventually make "irrelevant" the current US "certification" process - heavily criticized by Latin American countries as arrogant and counterproductive.

In Tobago last week, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said it was up to Caribbean countries to decide if they should admit Cuba into the 15-nation Caricom organization. In the past, the US has openly pressured Latin countries to follow US policy of isolating the communist island.

In Washington, Mr. Clinton's special adviser on Latin America, Thomas "Mac" McLarty, said negotiations for a "free-trade area of the Americas" will kick off at the summit, despite the administration's failure to win "fast track" trade authority from Congress. A "silent revolution" throughout the hemisphere, he said, is making possible "100 years of solidarity for democratic values."

In Brazil last October, Clinton announced that the US will assist South America's giant in extending education through computers, telecommunications, and the Internet. Recognizing the role learning plays in reducing income disparities and safeguarding democracy and free markets, education will be a central theme of the summit.

Part of the reason for the change in policy is Latin America's growing economic importance. As Mr. McLarty noted, the US now sends 40 percent of its exports to Latin America.

Another reason is demographic reality. More than half of all foreign-born residents in the US are from Latin America and the Caribbean, a new Census Bureau study finds. Until World War II, the majority were Europeans.

Risk of setbacks

Yet despite the new tack the US is taking toward relations with its southern neighbors, risks of setbacks remain strong, analysts say. For one thing, the new face is largely that of the Clinton administration. Congress, perhaps closer to the concerns and prejudices of Americans, still sees Latin America largely in terms of illegal immigration and drugs.

It will be news to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) of California, for example, that Congress's role in grading countries' antidrug performance is becoming "irrelevant." Senator Feinstein spearheaded congressional efforts to reject Clinton's certification of Mexico. Also, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms is critical of what he considers the administration's kid-glove treatment of Cuba.

The Santiago summit will give Clinton the opportunity to fight for the agenda and attention he believes Latin America requires, some observers say. "Just as Clinton's Africa trip was used to create interest in the administration's Africa initiatives, Santiago can serve the same purpose [for Latin America]," says Richard Feinberg, former special assistant to Clinton on inter-American affairs and dean of the University of California, San Diego's Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. An architect of the first summit in Miami in 1994, Mr. Feinberg says the trick will be pushing beyond the consensus on economic reform and democratic consolidation to implementing that agenda.

A 16-member leadership council that rated progress on a variety of Miami agenda items found only "modest" advances were made over the past 3-1/2 years. Efforts were too scattered and priorities weren't set on the one hand, the group found. Failure of "fast track" legislation in the US was another dampener. "The Congress undercut administration credibility badly in the hemisphere," Feinberg says.

The ideal of hemispheric brotherhood set forth in Miami also faces challenges from the crime and corruption waves affecting many Latin countries. Polls show Latin Americans are increasingly impatient with a democratic system's ability to address these issues. One result is a trend toward supporting former military leaders, such as Bolivia's new president, Hugo Banzer.

One reason the prospect of governments led by former military leaders worries some Latin observers is that the US just last year ended a 20-year embargo on arms sales to South America.

Another result is a loss of faith in judicial systems that are struggling to adopt new norms of civil rights such as "innocent until proven guilty." Latin Americans' frustration is leading to a rise in vigilantism and paramilitarism.

Colombia's challenge

Colombia will also continue to challenge any US effort to dampen interventionist tendencies. While it can boast the longest practice of democratic principles in South America, Colombia is also torn by a three-decade-long civil conflict that has left up to 40 percent of the country in guerrilla hands, according to some US estimates.

With evidence growing that guerrillas are financing their war through the cocaine trade, the US Congress is embroiled in discussions of how to meet this challenge. Up to now, the US has provided antinarcotics material and training to Colombian forces while seeking to remain outside the conflict. But some observers see even Colombia in terms of an opportunity for the US to improve its image among Latins.

"The Latins didn't like seeing the US demonize a democratically elected president," says Feinberg, referring to the US revoking President Ernesto Samper's visa on suspicions he knowingly accepted campaign money from drug lords. But with Mr. Samper leaving office this year, "We've gotten through the worst," he adds, "and the door is now open for more productive US-Colombia relations."

to Caribbean countries to decide if they should admit Cuba into the 15-nation Caricom organization. In the past, the US has openly pressured Latin countries to follow US policy of isolating the communist island.

In Washington, Mr. Clinton's special adviser on Latin America, Thomas "Mac" McLarty, said negotiations for a "free-trade area of the Americas" will kick off at the summit, despite the administration's failure to win "fast track" trade authority from Congress. A "silent revolution" throughout the hemisphere, he said, is making possible "100 years of solidarity for democratic values."

In Brazil last October, Clinton announced that the US will assist South America's giant in extending education through computers, telecommunications, and the Internet. Recognizing the role learning plays in reducing income disparities and safeguarding democracy and free markets, education will be a central theme of the summit.

Part of the reason for the change in policy is Latin America's growing economic importance. As Mr. McLarty noted, the US now sends 40 percent of its exports to Latin America.

Another reason is demographic reality. More than half of all foreign-born residents in the US are from Latin America and the Caribbean, a new Census Bureau study finds. Until World War II, the majority were Europeans.

Risk of setbacks

Yet despite the new tack the US is taking toward relations with its southern neighbors, risks of setbacks remain strong, analysts say. For one thing, the new face is largely that of the Clinton administration. Congress, perhaps closer to the concerns and prejudices of Americans, still sees Latin America largely in terms of illegal immigration and drugs.

It will be news to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) of California, for example, that Congress's role in grading countries' antidrug performance is becoming "irrelevant." Senator Feinstein spearheaded congressional efforts to reject Clinton's certification of Mexico. Also, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms is critical of what he considers the administration's kid-glove treatment of Cuba.

The Santiago summit will give Clinton the opportunity to fight for the agenda and attention he believes Latin America requires, some observers say. "Just as Clinton's Africa trip was used to create interest in the administration's Africa initiatives, Santiago can serve the same purpose [for Latin America]," says Richard Feinberg, former special assistant to Clinton on inter-American affairs and dean of the University of California, San Diego's Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. An architect of the first summit in Miami in 1994, Mr. Feinberg says the trick will be pushing beyond the consensus on economic reform and democratic consolidation to implementing that agenda.

A 16-member leadership council that rated progress on a variety of Miami agenda items found only "modest" advances were made over the past 3-1/2 years. Efforts were too scattered and priorities weren't set on the one hand, the group found. Failure of "fast track" legislation in the US was another dampener. "The Congress undercut administration credibility badly in the hemisphere," Feinberg says.

The ideal of hemispheric brotherhood set forth in Miami also faces challenges from the crime and corruption waves affecting many Latin countries. Polls show Latin Americans are increasingly impatient with a democratic system's ability to address these issues. One result is a trend toward supporting former military leaders, such as Bolivia's new president, Hugo Banzer.

One reason the prospect of governments led by former military leaders worries some Latin observers is that the US just last year ended a 20-year embargo on arms sales to South America.

Another result is a loss of faith in judicial systems that are struggling to adopt new norms of civil rights such as "innocent until proven guilty." Latin Americans' frustration is leading to a rise in vigilantism and paramilitarism.

Colombia's challenge

Colombia will also continue to challenge any US effort to dampen interventionist tendencies. While it can boast the longest practice of democratic principles in South America, Colombia is also torn by a three-decade-long civil conflict that has left up to 40 percent of the country in guerrilla hands, according to some US estimates.

With evidence growing that guerrillas are financing their war through the cocaine trade, the US Congress is embroiled in discussions of how to meet this challenge. Up to now, the US has provided antinarcotics material and training to Colombian forces while seeking to remain outside the conflict. But some observers see even Colombia in terms of an opportunity for the US to improve its image among Latins.

"The Latins didn't like seeing the US demonize a democratically elected president," says Feinberg, referring to the US revoking President Ernesto Samper's visa on suspicions he knowingly accepted campaign money from drug lords. But with Mr. Samper leaving office this year, "We've gotten through the worst," he adds, "and the door is now open for more productive US-Colombia relations."

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