Americas Summiteers All Hop Aboard the Free-Trade Express

LOOKING toward the sun-bathed Miami skyline, Haitian immigrant Marc Cherelus captured the spirit of the weekend's summit of the Americas as well as any of the 34 leaders gathered here.

Pointing out that many of the buildings before him were built by Latin American money and hands, the minister and part-time cab driver said, ''This meeting they have going on here is like that [skyline]: If America helps her neighbors in Latin America they will be good for America, and we can have a beautiful future I'm sure, if we get down to working together.''

The summit's presidents and prime ministers promoted a similar message for a hemisphere stretching from Alaska to Argentina: In a more interdependent, less ideological world, the Americas have an unprecedented opportunity to build economic prosperity and strengthen democracy by working together.

''This has really been a landmark day for our hemisphere,'' Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Saturday, after summit leaders committed to creating a hemispheric free-trade zone by the year 2005. Citing what he called an ''extraordinary degree of economic and political cooperation'' for a hemisphere more accustomed to divisions and distrust, the secretary called the summit a ''turning point in the integration of a prosperous, stable, and democratic Western Hemisphere.''

Even the Cuban issue failed to trouble Miami summit waters unduly, although some 50,000 Cuban Americans staged an anti-Castro rally Saturday in the city's Little Havana.

With all the countries of North and South America present but Cuba, the summit endorsed what will be called the Miami process -- a set of 23 ''action plans'' outlining specific steps to be taken in areas ranging from trade to the environment, corruption, human rights, consolidation of democracy, and the role of women in economic development.

''In all my experience, it's the most fully articulated summit of this kind I've ever seen,'' Mr. Christopher said. The summit also endorsed measures to help guarantee fair elections, tackle drug-money laundering, and strengthen extradition laws.

On the environment, a hemispheric phase-out of lead in gasoline was approved, with a target completion date of 2000. The US also signed a separate agreement with Central American countries to assist them in pursuing economic growth that favors the development of renewable resources.

As a first step toward creation of an Americas free-trade agreement, the leaders of the three North American Free Trade Agreement countries were expected to announce yesterday that Chile will begin negotiations next year to become NAFTA's fourth member by early 1996.

US presidential adviser David Gergen pointed to the potential of combining Americas-wide free trade with a Pacific Rim free-trade zone, which Asian-Pacific countries have agreed to form by 2020.

''What we now have is a commitment by these two important regions of the world to economic prosperity through free-trade principles,'' he said.

The three-day meeting's conclusion failed to match pre-summit predictions that the gathering would be an irrelevant photo shoot. It also proved that President Clinton has decided to hitch his wagon to the star of free trade as the guarantor of American prosperity.

''The president came into office emphasizing that the new global issues he wanted to address were not so much the geopolitical security concerns of past years as the challenge of economic security, and he's spent the last two years making good on that commitment,'' said presidential spokeswoman Dee Dee Meyers.

''The president is assembling the elements that are leading to the creation of good-paying jobs and the expansion of our economic growth to those who aren't feeling it yet,'' she added.

Although endorsement of the action plan and creation of the free-trade area was unanimous, the summit did not pass without cautionary voices.

Emphasizing that ''democracy and free trade are not enough'' in a region that includes the world's worst income gaps between rich and poor, Guyanan President Chedi Jagan said ''we have to guarantee our citizens' economic and social rights, too.''

Going even further, representatives of several nongovernmental organizations said the leaders were dooming the hemisphere to more poverty and instability by endorsing the free-trade development model.

Christopher said bringing democracy to Cuba was not one of the action items agreed to by summit leaders, but he said their discussion reflected a ''hope'' that when the next summit is held, there will be 35 democratically elected governments.

*Staff writer Christina Nifong contributed to this story.

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