FOR the past year, United States policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean has been hostage to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Although the Clinton administration was impelled to respond to crises in Haiti and a few other countries, progress toward developing a comprehensive policy for the region was blocked by the uncertain outcome of the trade pact with Mexico and Canada. With NAFTA's approval, the foundation is set for the US to take the lead in building an expanding partnership of western Hemisphere nations.
Administration officials are well aware of NAFTA's historic importance for the future of US-Latin American relations. Following its approval, President Clinton quickly arranged a meeting with the leaders of seven Central American countries. Vice President Gore visited Mexico and announced US plans for a summit meeting of the hemisphere's democratically elected heads of state later this year, the first since 1967. And the president and his advisers have again called for the forging of a ``Western Hemisphere Community of Democracies.'' Yet these are only symbolic gestures. They must now be followed by concrete actions.
The immediate challenge for the US and its North American trade partners is to transform NAFTA into a hemisphere-wide free-trade club. Consultations with other regional governments should begin now to establish the criteria, procedures, and timetables for incorporating other nations into NAFTA.
But the US agenda in Latin America goes far beyond trade matters. The Organization of American States needs US leadership to make it a more effective mechanism for promoting and defending democratic practices. In recent years, the OAS has demonstrated its potential for contributing to the advancement of democracy. But it remains constrained by differing national views of the organization's role and internal operational weaknesses.
The US can help by consistently keeping to its own commitment to multilateral action; pressing for the election of a strong secretary-general in next year's vote; working to expand the mandate and resources of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the OAS's Unit for Democracy; and encouraging incipient OAS efforts to tackle the thorny problem of civil-military relations in Latin America. It is vital that the US not retreat from its pledge to restore civilian leadership to Haiti, including its expressed willingness to join other nations under United Nations auspices in establishing a military presence in the country.
* Even as US aid programs shrink, US policy should increase attention to the problems of poverty and inequality in Latin America. The administration should assure an adequate capital replenishment for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), emphasizing stepped-up lending to poorer countries, and use its influence in the IDB and other international agencies to expand anti-poverty financing.
* The US should help the nations of Central America to recover economic viability, address deep social problems, and avert continuing political turmoil that threatens their fragile democratic advances. The administration's pledge not to abandon Central America will ring hollow unless US aid cutbacks are reversed, other international donors increase contributions, and the region is protected from a NAFTA-induced erosion of its benefits from the Caribbean Basin Initiative.
* The administration needs to clarify US anti-narcotics strategy in Latin America, ending confusion over priorities, objectives, and means. The administration appears to have accepted the unhappy fact that overseas eradication and interdiction have no impact on domestic drug abuse, but it continues to fund such efforts. Given the scarcity of foreign-aid resources, the US should either stop supporting the antidrug wars in Latin America or concentrate on helping supplier countries deal with their drug problems.
* US policy toward Cuba is a sad remnant of the cold war that continues to divide the US from nearly all Latin American and Caribbean nations. While the Clinton administration has taken modest steps to end overt hostility between the US and Cuba, it has stopped short of any basic change in the 30-year-old policy of squeezing Cuba economically and isolating it politically. It is time for a new approach that would engage the US in encouraging peaceful change in Cuba, reduce the risks of future crisis, and gain the cooperation and respect of Latin American and Caribbean nations.
* The administration should seek to develop mechanisms of regional cooperation to deal with important shared problems - immigration and refugees, environmental destruction, and arms control, for example - that to date the US has largely addressed either on a unilateral or bilateral basis.
NAFTA was an impressive triumph for Mr. Clinton. The challenge, and the promise, is to transform NAFTA into an expanding partnership - for economic development, democratic practice, and social justice - that eventually incorporates all nations of the hemisphere. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.