ALTHOUGH ignored by the news media, last week's visit to the United States by Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso could be one of the most significant events in US-Latin American relations this year -- rivaling President Clinton's decision to lend Mexico $20 billion to stem that country's financial crisis.
There are obvious explanations for the significance of the visit. By any standards, Brazil is a consequential country. Its population of 160 million is the world's fifth largest; with a GNP of $500 million, its economy ranks ninth.
The prospects of establishing a hemisphere-wide free trade area, a goal of US policy, depend on Brazil-US cooperation. Indeed, only in Brazil are US economic interests potentially as engaged as in Mexico. No other state or group of states can generate a domestic US constituency for extending free trade to all Latin America.
The US and Brazil, moreover, are the leaders of the two largest trade groups in the Americas, NAFTA and Mercosur. NAFTA produces 80 percent of all economic activity in the hemisphere; Mercosur accounts for 70 percent of the remainder. If the US finds common ground with Brazil and Argentina (the other key member of Mercosur), and these two trade groups come together, free trade in the Americas is inevitable. If not, it is impossible.
Brazilian cooperation is important to other US goals. Brazil's support is vital to strengthening the Organization of American States and other inter-American institutions, helping to make them more effective in promoting democracy and human rights, addressing social ills, and resolving cross-border conflicts. Cooperation between the two countries is important on such global issues as the environment, drugs, criminal violence, and weapons proliferation.
What most makes this visit special, however, is President Cardoso himself. He is one of Latin America's most highly regarded leaders ever -- a man of exceptional intelligence, a committed democrat, and a pragmatic politician.
As Mr. Cardoso's public statements and writings make plain, no one better understands the deep problems facing Brazil -- including sharp inequalities and injustice, weak and often self-serving political parties and institutions, and the uphill battle for economic stability and growth. He and his advisers also understand the crucial interplay between domestic challenges and global developments. They know Brazil must be fully engaged internationally in order to successfully confront problems at home.
Under Cardoso's leadership, Brazil can become an effective partner of the US and help to advance their many shared values and policy objectives. This, unsurprisingly, requires Washington to treat Brazil as a genuine partner -- by regularly consulting with the Brazilian government and actively seeking cooperation on a few areas of highest priority. Hemispheric trade and financial arrangements are just two examples. The president's recent visit was a good start. While the specific demands and complaints of the two governments were not ignored, the discussions appropriately emphasized prospects for cooperation on the broader regional and international issues.
The challenge for the US and Brazil is to sustain the good will and momentum that has been established, and forge a longer-term partnership that would well serve the interests of both. A visit by President Clinton to Brazil this year would certainly advance that goal.
Consideration should also be given to the creation of a US-Brazilian Binational Commission, similar to the US-Mexican Commission, which brings together cabinet-level officials from both countries each year. In view of Brazil's concern about Latin America's vulnerability to a Mexican-style financial crisis, the US Treasury and the Brazilian Finance Ministry could also meet on this issue, inviting finance ministers from all the Americas. The US might promote Brazil (with one or two other developing economies) as observers at the G-7 meetings.
This is the time for the US to make a sustained investment in building effective cooperation with Brazil. It has done so with Mexico. Brazil's importance, and current leadership, merit this attention.