THE Clinton administration's decision last year to convene the Summit of the Americas - the first meeting of Western Hemisphere presidents and prime ministers in more than a generation - was a bold and important initiative. Coming immediately after Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it was a clear signal of the significance the administration assigned to Latin America and the Caribbean and of its intention to extend free trade beyond Mexico to the rest of the region. The summit would be an opportunity to celebrate the recent advances toward cooperative hemispheric relations and, more important, to set the foundations for even more productive ties.
Yet, with little more than four months to go before the leaders are scheduled to meet, concerns are increasing, in both the United States and Latin America, that the summit may not fulfill its promise. Three problems need to be dealt with for the summit to succeed:
First, Latin America's two largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, are distressed by the early-December timing of the meeting. Both will have just held presidential elections. Mexico's new president will be inaugurated only one week before the summit. Brazil's president-elect will not have taken office by that time. This problem was recognized when the date was set, and it now needs to be addressed. The two countries account for some 60 percent of Latin America's population and they must be adequately represented for a successful summit. What the US can do is to assure both nations that, following their elections, the two presidents-elect and their advisers would be intensively consulted on the organization and agenda of the summit. Also, President Clinton should announce plans to invite the new presidents of Brazil and Mexico to meet with him early in 1995.
Second, the ``atmosphere'' for the summit, which was so positive earlier this year, has become progressively clouded by events surrounding Haiti. The threat of unilateral US military action, which would probably strain relations with Latin American and Caribbean nations sufficiently to require postponement of the summit, is not the only thing at issue. The immediate problem is that the crisis in Haiti - as it increasingly dominates US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean - is diverting the administration's attention from other regional issues. Latin American leaders want to talk to Washington about the summit, but they are being consulted more about Haiti.
For the next months, the White House has to give sustained priority to the summit. Its visibility must be raised in Washington and, most importantly, in Latin America.
Mr. Clinton should make at least one major speech this fall on US-Latin American relations and what he expects from the summit. No one else can make sure the meeting gets appropriate attention.
The third (and most serious) obstacle to a productive summit is the administration's virtual silence on the key issue of free trade in the hemisphere. For most Latin American governments, trade is the most important issue for summit discussion and decision. Many would be willing to limit the agenda to this single issue. Yet the administration has decided it will not set out its position on regional free-trade arrangements until Congress has approved ``fast track'' authority that will enable the US to begin actually negotiating such arrangements.
The administration argues that congressional approval - which is unlikely before the end of October and may not, in fact, be forthcoming until next year - could be endangered by premature disclosure of US thinking on hemispheric trade. That stance should be reconsidered. Surely, when Congress begins reviewing the fast-track request, it will want to know how the White House plans to use the authority, and the administration's interest in free trade with Latin America is no secret.
The US should move quickly to outline the conditions and procedures it proposes for negotiating free-trade arrangements with Latin American countries and for building a hemispheric-wide free-trade area. It should begin intensive consultation with its NAFTA partners and other Latin American and Caribbean governments to develop a program of action for consideration at the summit. This alone would virtually ensure the meeting's success.
The summit can make a valuable and lasting contribution to more-constructive Western Hemispheric relations. That is why it deserves top priority from both the US and Latin America. If there is one thing we can be assured of, it is that the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean will give as much importance to the summit as they believe the US is giving it. 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.