IN preparation for the summit of Western Hemisphere presidents and prime ministers scheduled for Dec. 9 in Miami, United States officials have initiated intensive consultations with Latin American and Caribbean governments about the summit's agenda, format, and goals. They are likely to hear a familiar message from regional leaders: that trade and investment are their top priority; that they want to move with all deliberate speed to build hemisphere-wide free-trade arrangements; and that progress depends on the US making clear how it wants to proceed.
Latin American and Caribbean officials will offer good reasons why the US should take the lead. They know that the US, by far the hemisphere's largest economic power, will drive any economic integration process. It was, after all, the US in 1990 that first put forth the vision of a regional free-trade system.
Latin American and Caribbean governments will say their views have been made plain, and that they are ready to undertake market openings with the US. To move further, Washington must clarify its ideas.
Leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean worry that the momentum for free trade, which emerged last November with the approval of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Vice President Gore's announcement of the Dec. 9 summit, seems to be dissipating. They want to hear that the White House remains committed to a free trading system in the hemisphere. Mainly they want to see some forward movement.
As a first step, the US should quickly fulfill its pledge to Chile by incorporating it into NAFTA, or making a direct free-trade deal. It should avoid making other such commitments though, or preparing lists of candidates. Instead, the US should outline the conditions and procedures it proposes for bringing other states into a free-trade arrangement.
No one expects, or really wants, the US to come out with a detailed blueprint or road map for hemispheric free trade. That should result from extensive consultations among all countries. What is required is a clear statement of the basic ground rules under which the US would be prepared to negotiate free-trade agreements. Such a statement should address the following key questions:
* Does the US want to proceed by allowing other countries to accede to NAFTA? Or does it prefer to negotiate agreements bilaterally? Is some combination possible?
* What criteria must states meet in order to qualify for free-trade agreements with the US? The criteria should be straightforward and transparent and should emphasize a country's ability and willingness to fulfill the provisions of NAFTA, including its side agreements on environmental protection and labor rights.
* Who decides if a country has fulfilled the criteria? Does the US want to keep that authority itself, share it with its NAFTA partners, or set up some kind of broader intergovernmental mechanism with representatives from other countries? Is there a need for a new regional organization or other multilateral framework to coordinate and monitor progress toward a hemispheric free-trade area?
* How should the US manage its trade relations with countries unable to meet the entry criteria or that want to postpone joining a free-trade accord? (Some countries may calculate that the costs of negotiating and implementing a free-trade pact with the US are greater than the benefits.) What might be done to offset the diversion of trade and investment flows? What might be done to assist weaker countries to meet the requirements?
* Finally, what timetable does the US see for the establishment of a free-trade system that incorporates most of the Americas?
By offering Latin America a proposition that begins to respond to these questions, the Clinton administration can open the way for a richer set of consultations. The sooner it does so, the more productive the summit itself will be, not just on trade, but on the full range of Latin American and Caribbean issues. 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 by mail 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.