PRESIDENT Bush has turned needed attention toward Latin America, with his quick visit to Mexico and coming week-long tour of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Venezuela. The issues south of the border may not be as acute as the Gulf crisis, but they are of tremendous long-term importance, as Mr. Bush recognizes. The pleasantries with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico this week were a run-up to formal negotiations on a free-trade agreement, likely to begin next April. The trade proposal, which President Salinas endorsed last June, underscores Mexico's departure from its insular trade policies of the past.
Salinas sees a US-Mexico free-trade zone as a means of encouraging the foreign investment needed to sustain his country's rise from an economic mire. He also sees it as an anchor for economic reforms already launched, including privatization of Mexican industry. Once a free-trade treaty is in place, it will hard for Salinas's successors to turn back the clock.
The pact should prove mutually beneficial, but it has opponents in both Mexico and the US. Many Mexicans, including Salinas, balk at including their biggest asset - the still state-owned oil industry - in trade negotiations. Oil is a symbol of Mexican nationalism.
Objections in the US will spring from the export of jobs to Mexico. But the most potent argument against the free-trade zone may be Salinas's less than stirringsterling? record on political reform. His party, the PRI, still clings to old habits of squelching challengers through electoral fraud. Americans will question closer relations with a government that permits such abuses.
The Mexican president has a dilemma: how to rein in the PRI and allow greater openness without so weakening the present power structure that his ability to implement economic reform is hampered. He'll have to resolve that dilemma in favor of greater democracy if his partnership with the US is to prosper.
Support for democracy will be a theme of Bush's South American trip, which begins Sunday. Many of the countries he will visit are struggling to solidify a move away from military rule. The two biggest, Brazil and Argentina, will want more US flexibility in easing debt burdens. All will want details about Bush's ``Enterprise for the Americas'' plan, with its promise of freer trade throughout the hemisphere.
With the spread of democracy and more open economies, this is a time of hope in Latin America, mixed with turmoil. Bush is right to break from his other concerns to devote some time to this critical part of the globe.