After High Expectations, a So-So Year For US-Latin America Relations

Following the highly successful Summit of the Americas in Miami a year ago, 1995 was expected to be an exceptionally productive year for United States-Latin American relations.

On virtually every important issue, Washington and other hemispheric governments reached wide-ranging policy agreements at the summit. The stage seemed set for a vigorous and comprehensive US policy to enhance political and economic cooperation.

Expectations haven't been met - for a combination of reasons. Good policymaking, international and domestic, was frustrated by the extreme partisanship of US politics this year. The Mexican peso crisis and other setbacks in the region dissipated the spirit generated by the summit. Responsibility for US policy in the hemisphere remained fragmented among many departments and agencies. Nevertheless, Washington can still claim a series of modest accomplishments for its Latin American policy in '95.

Mexican bailout

The administration's most important initiative was assembling a $50 billion package in January to stabilize Mexico's economy following the peso devaluation. Disregarding congressional and public opposition, President Clinton contributed $20 billion in US funds and, despite European objection, persuaded international organizations to put up the rest.

The aid package was crucial in stemming Mexico's slide; it did not, however, propel a quick turnaround, nor will it necessarily produce a sustained recovery. The US could not have done much more, although a visit to Mexico by Mr. Clinton (following the precedent of his last three predecessors) may have bolstered the Zedillo government.

US relations with Brazil, a nation that boasts Latin America's largest population and economy, continued to improve. The summit preparation helped start more productive communication between the two countries, and this was reinforced by the successful visit of Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to Washington in April. But Brazil and the US haven't yet turned better communication into cooperation on key issues. The US still pays too little attention to Brazil and often lets minor disagreements dominate the relationship.

No one can be happy about progress made toward the summit's central goal: building a hemispheric free-trade area by 2005. The statistical and technical foundations for eventual free-trade talks are being set. The disappointment has been on the political side. The White House and Congress could not agree on renewed "fast track" negotiating authority - without which the president can't undertake serious trade negotiations or exercise hemispheric trade leadership.

The immediate damage is the delay of Chile's entry into NAFTA until 1997. Another setback was the failure to offer the economies of the Caribbean Basin an interim trade program pending their participation in NAFTA. US trade policy lost steam and direction in 1995. Perhaps most disheartening to its Latin American trade partners have been US bilateral actions, with Washington having threatened to use "big stick" trade sanctions to resolve disputes over items such as bananas and intellectual property.

The US took a step toward improving its policy toward Cuba when it negotiated a new migration agreement with the Castro government in May. Under the agreement, Cuban refugees would be treated more like those of other countries.

The administration breathed a sigh of relief when presidential elections in Haiti went off without a hitch earlier this month. It was a major step forward, but progress on every front in Haiti has been excruciatingly slow and hardly irreversible. Moreover, political partisanship in Washington stifled serious debate on such fundamental issues as the wisdom of denying a second term to President Aristide, conditions on economic aid, and the continuing need for international security support.

Drugs, disputes, and defense

US drug policy remained a source of contention, rather than cooperation. Particularly fractious disputes emerged with Colombia and Bolivia.

Working jointly with Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, the US helped to end the shooting war between Peru and Ecuador and, so far, to keep the peace. But the underlying conflict is unresolved, and even the truce remains precarious.

On security and military matters, the US convened the first-ever meeting of the hemisphere's defense ministers - an important effort to affirm civilian authority over military force.

On balance, it was not a bad year for the US with regard to Latin America. But, aside from the president's rescue package for Mexico, US leadership played a diminishing role in the region in 1995 and is unlikely to reassert itself before November's elections.

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