US Needs a Fresh Look South


AMONG the many issues confronting the Clinton administration are its policies toward Latin America. A fresh look at this relationship is a necessary step to better relations and a prologue to new policies that should encompass economic as well as human rights and political issues.

It is mutually convenient to perceive the Americas as an economic unit similar to those in Europe and Asia. Although hard hit by recession, Latin America is one of the most vigorous markets for United States capital goods. Last year, Latin America and Caribbean countries purchased $63 billion worth of US exports, compared to $48 billion bought by Japan.

In the last five years, the US tripled its exports to Mexico. In 1991, Argentina increased its US imports by 74 percent, to about $2 billion. That same year, and for the first time in a decade, the US had a trade surplus with Latin America and the Caribbean, with the region absorbing 15.1 percent of US exports. Not only could increased commerce with Latin America and the Caribbean generate jobs in the US; it could also help reduce the US trade deficit while strengthening those countries' fragile economie s.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed with Mexico and Canada could be expanded to include the rest of the continent. Several countries, among them Chile and Argentina, have already indicated their interest in participating in this process. Any expansion also should include the Caribbean countries, which are concerned that the NAFTA agreement will be detrimental to their economies. Following his recent meeting with President Salinas de Gortari of Mexico, President Clinton indicated that t heir talks could "lay the foundation for further trade agreements between the US and other nations in Central and South America."

For their part, Latin American and Caribbean countries should diversify their exports and reinvigorate regional trade and exchange. They should curb inflation, as have Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, among others. They also should dismantle unproductive state-owned industries, revitalize their industrial plants, and reorganize and make effective their tax-collection mechanisms.

FROM the political point of view, the US should show a continuous commitment to see democratic governments firmly established throughout the Americas. The critical issue of relations with Cuba should be reexamined: Decades of blockade have brought considerable hardship to the Cuban people. The import of medical and food supplies should be allowed, an action that will not significantly change the political panorama in the island, but would help the population considerably.

The policies toward Central America should be reconsidered, with especial emphasis on El Salvador, for too long a playground of the superpowers.

A decade of war and more than $6 billion of US taxpayers' money, a significant part of it in military aid, have succeeded only in ravaging that country and decimating its population. The US should strongly support the recommendations of the Commission on Truth, established as part of the peace process in that beleaguered nation.

El Salvador and the other Central American countries could be helped by broad initiatives that include medical aid and agricultural and economic development projects. They could be modeled after projects such as one financed by Italy. Called PRODERE, the project is present throughout Central America and has been implemented with the collaboration of United Nations agencies, for a total amount of $115 million.

PRODERE, geared to refugees and repatriated people from Central American countries, has led to better education standards, helped to develop new products and create new markets for agricultural goods, and improved sanitation in rural areas.

In addition, the project has provided for training of paramedical personnel and construction of health-care facilities in the countryside.

Recent events in Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, and Peru have demonstrated that democracy is still under siege in Latin America. To reinforce improvements in the human rights situation throughout the continent, the US and the Western democracies should make clear their disregard for post coup d'etat military regimes.

New legislation could be introduced at the national and international levels prohibiting recognition of such regimes. By making the Latin American and Caribbean countries true partners in progress and helping stabilize their democratic institutions, the US would signal that, for the region, a new era has indeed started.

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