President Clinton's failure last week to participate in the ceremony marking the transfer of the Panama Canal from American to Panamanian ownership demonstrated a lack of grace.
The canal handover was merely symbolic. Aside from the bitter taste it left among Panamanians, the president's absence was of little direct consequence. But the choice made with regard to Panama raises concerns about the Clinton administration's willingness to forcefully engage other hemispheric issues on its agenda, particularly those that are politically controversial at home.
Turning the canal over to Panama was as grand a feat as the building of the waterway. It represented an exceptional act of good will and statesmanship by the US. Jimmy Carter and others, Republicans and Democrats alike, paid a high political price for proceeding with the canal agreements in the late 1970s. Mr. Carter, who recognized its importance, celebrated by inviting every Latin American president (aside from Fidel Castro) to the signing ceremony in Washington. The Clinton administration, concerned the transfer was unpopular, kept its distance.
Now, Washington's most important challenge is to develop and implement an effective policy toward Colombia, Latin America's most troubled nation. After a period of muddling, in September the US finally seemed ready to shape a coherent strategy that could help Colombia address its worsening drug and guerrilla problems. The White House and State Department worked closely with the government of President Pastrana to develop a plan to confront these problems, and assured the Colombians that financial support would follow.
The plan was completed in November, but the administration has yet to request the promised funding from Congress. This should be among President Clinton's highest priorities. Colombia's future is in grave danger, and the consequences of failure will be widely felt in the US and elsewhere. US support is needed to bolster the authority of the Pastrana government and improve the professional capacity of its military. That is what is required for Colombia to successfully negotiate with the guerrillas, defend human rights, and attack drugs.
The second priority - new trade arrangements with Central American and the Caribbean nations to keep them competitive with post-NAFTA Mexico - has been pending since the 1993 approval of NAFTA. Congressional action has been blocked by US textile unions and producers, but prospects are good that a bill offering trade benefits to both Africa and the Caribbean Basin could gain approval soon - but the White House has to press harder than it has so far. The basin countries, with 60 million people, are closely integrated with the US through large flows of trade, investment, and migrants. Ideally, Washington should also pursue a hemisphere-wide trade and economic agenda, even if US politics make progress difficult this coming year.
Haiti is a third issue requiring urgent attention. Although most US troops will leave Haiti this month, the country remains in political and economic disarray. Elections - first for parliament and later for president - are scheduled in 2000. The US should already be joining with other countries to try to assure that these elections are carried out as fairly and peaceably as possible, so they can provide the essential legitimacy needed by a new government. Financial and technical assistance for Haiti's electoral authorities and support for international monitors are needed.
In the best of cases, Haiti's new leadership would be able to work with the international community to restart its economic aid programs. But Washington also needs to be prepared for the worst, in which some form of multinational action is needed to maintain order. To be helpful, US policy must avoid renewed partisan battles between the White House and Congress, which have constricted the US's ability to act constructively toward Haiti.
Clearly, there are other hemispheric issues that should concern Washington. Venezuela may be headed for trouble, as the nation's politics becomes polarized and confrontational, the economy continues to slump, and President Chvez concentrates more and more power. And no one can be sure that Mexico will, this time, avoid its perennial election-year crisis. Peru's presidential election could also spark conflict as President Fujimori pursues a constitutionally questionable third term. Ecuador's economy remains near collapse. Tensions over frontiers between Nicaragua and Honduras could boil over. Cuba could again produce an unpleasant surprise.
Yet, Colombia, Haiti, and the Caribbean Basin trade initiative stand out as the main priorities. They are all situations in which the US government is already deeply involved and can act quickly and decisively - if it chooses to do so. Failure to act in each of these cases will be costly, to the countries and to the US.
*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society