LIKE most good parties, the success of the Summit of the Americas - the Dec. 9-11 gathering of 34 Western Hemisphere presidents and prime ministers in Miami - depends on its host, Bill Clinton. If successful, the summit has the potential to set the agenda of United States-Latin American relations for the foreseeable future.
To make this happen, President Clinton - in his opening address and throughout the two-day session - has to convey his commitment to a free-trading system that incorporates every country of the Americas. He has to assure them he will fight as vigorously for regional free trade as he did for NAFTA. He must also mobilize the support of every Latin American and Caribbean government. Without progress toward free trade, this summit, like its predecessor 27 years ago, will be forgotten.
Free trade is what the nations of Latin America thought the summit was about when it was announced by Vice President Al Gore Jr. in Mexico a year ago. Since then, however, the summit's purpose has become somewhat muddled, and expectations for a significant outcome have diminished. Mr. Clinton can make up for all this - by challenging the US Congress and every government at the summit to join with him in forging a hemisphere without barriers to trade or investment. And he should call for this to happen no later than 2005.
The president should make clear his intention to ask the new Republican Congress to grant him the fast-track authority he needs to negotiate new trade pacts in the hemisphere. And he should treat regional trade initiatives as bipartisan undertakings - by applauding President Bush for putting forth the vision of hemispheric free trade and initiating trade talks with Mexico, and by giving Republicans credit for providing the majority of votes to pass NAFTA and GATT. He could go even further by stating that NAFTA will be the model for dealing with labor and environmental issues, and that future trade negotiations won't incorporate stiffer provisions in these areas (which most Republicans and many in Latin America see as hidden protectionism).
Most Latin American and Caribbean governments say they want to participate in a hemispheric free-trade system, but many are concerned about how it would be created and at what pace. They worry about opening weak economies to competition from industrial giants such as Canada and the US. They also worry that their own incipient subregional trading pacts would be overwhelmed. Perhaps most of all, they are concerned that the US will get its own way in negotiations and dominate (perhaps unfairly) the hemispheric arrangements that emerge.
CLINTON can alleviate some of these concerns and thereby deepen Latin American and Caribbean support for hemispheric free trade. He should make it plain that the US will not demand more of other countries than what is already included in its agreement with Mexico. He should also state that his government is not wedded to a particular procedure for achieving free trade - i.e., that NAFTA accession should be made a possibility, but that other options, such as the merging of NAFTA with other groups, also should be explored. Clinton can reassure Latin America of his commitment to free trade by announcing that the US and its NAFTA partners will begin talks with Chile.
Clinton should highlight Brazil's importance in the development of hemispheric trading arrangements. Brazil has been the most reluctant to commit to such an arrangement. It should be clear that progress toward regional free trade requires that the US find common ground with Brazil, which accounts for 40 percent of Latin America's economic activity (almost twice as much as Mexico) and is the recognized leader of Mercosur, the region's most important economic group.
The summit can be an agenda-setting event. It can open the way to a new and more productive relationship between the US and Latin America and the Caribbean - if Clinton and the other assembled leaders want it to. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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.