WITH President Clinton and his advisers increasingly focused on November's elections, it may not be the best time to propose a series of policy initiatives toward Latin America and the Caribbean. This is particularly so since some of the president's past efforts in the region - the Haiti intervention, NAFTA, and the Mexican rescue package, for instance - are not popular. Yet there is important unfinished business in the hemisphere, and what Washington does or does not do this year will affect the future of United States-Latin American relations. Six issues require priority attention:
First, the administration should act to move the trade agenda forward: It should develop an interim trade program for Caribbean and Central American countries until they qualify for NAFTA; negotiate Chile's entry to NAFTA; and open broader talks toward establishing a hemispheric free-trade area as agreed at the December 1994 Summit of the Americas. To lead on trade matters and demonstrate commitment to the summit agreements, the White House will have to obtain renewed ''fast track'' negotiating authority from Congress - at least sufficient to pursue negotiations with Chile. That will require the kind of compromise with Republican lawmakers on environmental and labor questions that the administration has so far unwisely refused to consider.
Second, the administration should continue to assist Mexico's economic recovery and support initiatives by the Zedillo government to open the country's politics. In the past months, Mexico has made progress on both fronts, but the economic crisis is not resolved, and limited democratic changes could be reversed. President Clinton's advisers are probably telling him to avoid any close identification with Mexico or NAFTA, which look like political liabilities at this point. But, with US interests so deeply engaged in so many ways in Mexico, neglect is hardly a serious policy option.
Rethink the war on drugs
Third, it is time for the administration to redefine US antidrug policies in Latin America. Our current approach has led to some spectacular drug busts, the destruction of a few big cartels, and the arrest of many kingpins. But it has not reduced the flow of cocaine and other illicit drugs to this country - or strengthened the ability of Latin American institutions to deal with drug problems. And as a mostly unilateral approach, it remains a source of continuing friction in our relations with many countries in the region. The US needs to develop a more constructive antinarcotics strategy - one that elicits cooperation instead of provoking conflict.
Fourth, the US should moderate its policy toward Cuba. While continuing to oppose Fidel Castro Ruz's one-man rule, the US should stop trying to subvert his regime, an unattainable goal. Instead, we should cooperate with other countries in Latin America and elsewhere to set the stage for a peaceful transition to a democratic Cuba. Such a policy shift may cost the president a few votes, but it would better serve US national interests as well as the interests of Cubans. It is also more likely to encourage constructive change within Cuba.
Longer support of Haiti
Fifth, the US must sustain its commitments to Haiti throughout the year and beyond. Clearly Haiti has made progress in the past year, and the Clinton administration can take some credit for that. Yet, Haiti and its people are still impoverished. Few, if any, of the country's institutions function adequately. And the potential for violence remains high. Although most US soldiers are being withdrawn, Washington should continue to support a UN presence in Haiti and provide the leadership to maintain a significant international-aid program.
Sixth, the US should work with other governments to strengthen the Organization of American States (OAS) and make it a more effective instrument for multinational cooperation in the hemisphere. The OAS ought to be assigned far greater authority in the implementation of the various agreements reached at the Miami Summit. By establishing an institutional base for follow-up activities, this would enhance prospects that the summit will have a lasting impact.
These substantive initiatives would allow the US to advance its own interests by taking advantage of generally sound US-Latin American relations. President Clinton should also undertake one important symbolic gesture. Like his three immediate predecessors and nearly every other US president in the past half-century, he should visit several countries of Latin America - starting with Mexico. As much as anything else, this would demonstrate the administration's continuing commitment to the region.