Summit Shows 'Maturing' Of US-Latin America Ties

Chile gathering took a step toward creating a free-trade area of the Americas. But the US role remains unclear.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Miami, site of the first Summit of the Americas in 1994, was about vision.

But Santiago, Chile, which hosted the second summit of the region's 34 democracies this past weekend, was about getting down to the business of hemispheric cooperation.

To understand the process of expanding cooperation and progress toward creation of a free-trade area of the Americas, one might picture a rocket flying to the moon. "It's the takeoff and landing that get all the attention," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "No one pays much attention to the interim stages unless something goes wrong, but that doesn't make them any less important."

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The Santiago summit displayed neither disaster nor triumph. Leaders took a first step toward creating a hemispheric free-trade area stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego by 2005. But while talks will be launched within a month, a final agreement is not certain, both because of opposition in the US Congress and questions about economic growth in Latin America.

Education, human rights focuses

Meeting on a continent where the average child receives only five years of education, leaders also earmarked more than $40 billion for achieving a goal of 100 percent primary education by 2010. They created a hemispheric justice-studies center to train judicial personnel and make the region's justice systems work better.

Noting the central importance of a free press to sustaining democratic freedoms - and that more than 200 journalists have been killed in the hemisphere since 1994 - the leaders created the office of a "special rapporteur" to focus international attention on threats to a free press and to investigate specific rights-abuse cases.

The leaders endorsed the idea of a multilateral system of evaluating fellow countries' progress in battling drug trafficking and cutting drug consumption.

Those initiatives may not pop like fireworks. But they underline a shift in hemispheric relations that portends greater integration and cooperation.

The summit also demonstrated the growing comfort of Latin American countries about working with a less-domineering US, and cemented a growing conviction among observers that the occasional glance the US has traditionally made southward is becoming a steady focus.

"The difference from Miami," says Genaro Arriagado, summit coordinator for Chilean President Eduardo Frei, "is that the first summit was an invitation of President Clinton, but [Santiago] and subsequent summits result from the work of ministers from all the countries on all the issues involved."

Noting that Mr. Clinton arrived in Santiago without the "fast-track" authority from Congress to facilitate negotiation of a free-trade accord, Mr. Arriagado says the US arrived "weaker" than might have otherwise been the case. But he says that helped make for a "friendlier" and "more balanced" US leadership that is a "great opportunity for the region."

US officials also noted the shift in relations since 1994. "We have moved from the celebration of democracy" in Miami "to the hard work of making cooperation work," says Thomas "Mack" McLarty, Clinton's special envoy for the Americas. And Latin countries, he adds, demonstrated a "much more mature, more confident relationship with the US" at the summit.

US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky notes a "very important transformation in thinking across the hemisphere" in which three points Clinton emphasized in Miami - fiscal and macroeconomic stability, "people empowerment" through democracy, and free trade - have been adopted.

Santiago was also notable for the rise of Brazil. Brazil has been tagged with a wary attitude toward a free-trade accord. The clearest sign of recognition of Brazil's importance was its designation as co-chair - with the US - of the last three years of free-trade negotiations, expected to be the toughest.

'Things are more balanced'

Between the US and Brazil "there has been a lot of mistrust," says one Brazilian diplomat. "But we are not so dependent on the US anymore, things are more balanced. We cannot simply be rolled over, and I think Washington understands that."

Pointing to the example of the antinarcotics battle, the US is evolving from "seeing [the southern countries] as the bad guys to realizing that we can only solve this through cooperation and meeting mutual needs," the diplomat says. "If there's going to be a free-trade area," he adds, "it will have to be done in the same manner."

At Summit, Cuba Was missing but Not Forgotten

In the country-count competition, Cuba won hands down. While Chile was hosting 34 democracies at the Summit of the Americas, Cuba - the only country not invited - was hosting 75 countries at an international meeting on women.

While leaders discussed education, justice, reducing poverty, and growth through freer trade, Cuba was left out.

Santiago brought together a club of democracies, and Cuba is a dictatorship. The 34 countries are committed to a free-trade area, and Cuba, with its planned communist system, doesn't fit. But Cuba's absence was a black spot in a picture of expanding cooperation. Barbados's prime minister said, "This should be the last summit without Cuba."

Though absent, the island nation was still in the back of many minds.

First there was a rumor that Canada, Brazil, and Mexico would push for language calling for Cuba's readmission into the Organization of American States. A Mexican official denied it. Then a Buenos Aires daily reported Argentine President Carlos Menem would take to Santiago a plan to bridge the deep divide between Washington and Havana. But after a meeting with President Clinton, Mr. Menem said they agreed Cuba must return to the democratic fold "as soon as possible."

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrtien did announce that he would visit Cuba this month. In response, US national security adviser Sandy Berger said, "The priority is democracy in Cuba, and we would expect that ... this would be a centerpiece of [Mr. Chrtien's] trip."

There was evidence that Cuba would have liked an invitation. When the first summit was held in Miami in 1994, Fidel Castro said he was "honored" not to be invited. This time Cuba's foreign minister called Chilean Foreign Minister Jos Miguel Insulza to say Cuba regretted being left out. Mr. Insulza told the press he, too, regretted Cuba's absence, but said the island would have to "give political signals" to achieve its reintegration.

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