Time to reenergize US-Latin relations

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As President Clinton prepares to travel to Mexico and Central America early next month, the White House has the opportunity to reinvigorate US policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. Five broad challenges require US attention.

The first is Mexico - from any perspective, the most vital part of Latin America for the US. It is our second most important trading partner, and the largest source of immigration to the US. No international initiative in recent memory, aside from those involving US military force, has provoked more controversy than free trade with Mexico. US relations with Latin America as a whole are fundamentally shaped by the quality of our relationship with Mexico. Mr. Clinton should highlight the expansion of US-Mexican cooperation in the past six years, but also stress the need to develop better ways to deal with such shared concerns as narcotics trafficking, migration issues, and environmental protection along the border. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) successfully promoted economic advance in the US and Mexico, but its accomplishments need to be better publicized, and the two governments should be working systematically toward the long-term integration of our two economies.

Second, the administration needs to begin building more long-term relations with the nations of Central America and the Caribbean. In terms of geography, trade, investment, and migration, these smaller nations - with a population of more than 50 million - are clearly part of North America, yet US relations with them remain ambivalent. The US responded generously with disaster relief in the aftermath of hurricanes Mitch and Georges, but that isn't enough. More permanent trade and economic relations with the region are essential to help set the stage for sustained regional growth and serve the overriding US interest of having stable neighbors in the Caribbean basin.

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Third, the president should make plain he understands economic integration is the cornerstone of an enduring and productive relationship with Latin America. What Latin American nations most want and need from the US is stable access to its markets and investment capital, and they're willing to provide access to their markets in exchange. The administration's inability to gain congressional approval of fast-track authority for NAFTA holds back progress in negotiations toward free hemispheric trade and raises doubts about US commitment. The current financial crisis battering Brazil and other Latin American nations underscores the need for regional economic cooperation that goes beyond trade. The US should propose a hemispheric initiative to develop financial arrangements that can help defend individual countries against currency crises and reduce the likelihood of their uncontrolled spread. Mechanisms to protect poorer and vulnerable groups are needed as well.

Fourth, in his recent State of the Union address, Clinton pointed to Cuba as the the hemisphere's only remaining dictatorship, but the administration needs to demonstrate equal concern about the precarious state of democracy in many Latin American countries. Haiti's government is elected, but it doesn't govern. Unremitting violence in Colombia by guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and drug criminals is undermining the rule of law, despite the Pastrana government's efforts to achieve peace. The landslide election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela revealed widespread hostility to traditional democratic leaders and institutions. Former military rulers in several other countries are enjoying renewed popularity. Even after years of effective democratic rule, Chile remains deeply polarized. Democracy is secure in most of Latin America, but its survival is not assured.

Fifth, the administration should initiate a sustained regional effort to strengthen the Organization of American States. Despite progress in some areas, the OAS is still too feeble to serve as an effective instrument for addressing pressing hemispheric issues and advancing cooperation, and most governments are indifferent to its financial and institutional difficulties. Systematic US attention could help spur other countries to action.

The administration's main challenge is to reenergize its own policy in the hemisphere.

*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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