MARCH is always a difficult month for inter-American relations.
It's when the United States government - first the president and then Congress - judges the efforts of countries in Latin America and elsewhere to fight the narcotics trade and decides whether to ''certify'' their performance. Denial of certification carries a threat of economic sanctions, including the termination of bilateral aid, the loss of trade privileges, and US opposition to multilateral loans. (Aside from pariah nations such as Iraq and Libya, however, Washington has always waived the sanctions on national security grounds.)
This year, the spotlight is on Colombia and Mexico. With drug-related corruption and violence reaching all levels and sectors of society in each country, there are solid arguments for denying certification to both. Yet, a review of what each has done to combat narco-trafficking would also justify a decision to certify. That there are no good criteria for making judgments is one of the myriad problems with the certification process.
Latin American governments see the process as a demeaning intrusion into their domestic affairs. The irony that they are being judged by the world's largest consumer of illicit drugs doesn't escape them. Indeed, there are years in which the US might not be able to meet its own standards for certifiable performance. Certification threatens governments with embarrassment as well as sanctions, compelling some to actions they would prefer to avoid, but mostly producing resentment rather than stronger, long-term collaboration.
Drug issue dominates
The certification process can allow the single issue of drugs - with all its highly charged political and emotional complications - to dominate US relations with certain countries, overshadowing everything else on the bilateral agenda. This is particularly dangerous in the case of US-Mexican ties, the most complex and varied of all US foreign relationships.
The ''decertification'' of Mexico this year could well undo the political and economic gains of recent US initiatives toward the country. Even if sanctions were waived, that decision could derail economic recovery by provoking another drop in confidence among investors. It could also further debilitate President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, making economic management and political reform even more difficult, and weakening any resolve to confront drug trafficking and corruption.
Colombia, in the midst of its worst political crisis in a generation, presents an even more troubling situation. Accused of accepting drug money for his election campaign, President Ernesto Samper Pizano continues to lose support and is unable to govern, yet resists calls to resign. (There is a constitutional process under way to decide his fate.) Whatever decision Washington makes regarding certification could have significant impact on Colombia's political system and on the future of US relations with the country and regime.
The best solution would be to defer the decision for several months, allowing Colombia to address its problems without interference. But that may not be an option under US law. However, Washington may be able to avoid intruding harshly into Colombian politics simply by announcing that the country's status would remain unchanged from last year - i.e., Colombia would continue to be denied certification with a waiver of sanctions - but would be reviewed again in the near future.
Certification is a flawed mechanism because it is part of a flawed US strategy - based on the wrong-headed premise that the US can address its drug problems overseas. Evidence points in the opposite direction, showing that US anti-drug battles in other countries have made no dent in narcotic use at home. Speaking last month at the Heritage Foundation, President Clinton's designated drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, currently commander of US military forces in Latin America, said that despite all efforts in the region, ''there has been no diminishment of the price or availability of cocaine on the streets of America.''
The enormous profits made from drugs, coupled with the low cost of producing and shipping them to the US, suggest that nothing the US does outside its borders will help much to solve its domestic drug problem. Whatever small gains there are to be made overseas depend on cooperation between Washington and Latin America. Browbeating Mexico and Colombia is the wrong way to build an effective partnership on drugs or any other issue.