CHILE has heard all the arguments about the Clinton administration dropping the ball on US relations with Latin America.
But when Warren Christopher stopped by Santiago yesterday as part of a five-country swing through El Salvador, Chile, Argentina (where he is today), Brazil, and Trinidad, he was the first US secretary of state to do so in three decades.
So even though President Clinton fumbled his commitment to getting Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by the end of 1995, Chile did not complain too loudly.
''That's the paradox of [US-Chilean] relations right now,'' says a Chilean official. ''We have a high-level exchange with the US in many important areas, but at the same time we find Chile's entry into NAFTA frozen by US politics.''
The official might have been speaking for Latin America in general. The region remains off the front burners of American foreign policy and increasingly finds itself the object of partisan attacks in the US. But at the same time, the kinds of contacts the US has institutionalized with its southern neighbors shows a deepening relationship.
Some political analysts criticize the Clinton administration for ignoring its southern backyard or reducing it to a bifocal vision of drugs and immigration. Others insist the US, in the three years since Clinton took office, has made important strides in elevating issues of trade and democracy to a level once occupied by security concerns.
''For those of us who worried that things under Clinton would be completely domestically focused and that the progress in inter-American relations under President Bush would be lost, this administration has been a surprise,'' says Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin America expert at Florida International University in Miami.
Off to good start
Mr. Clinton started out right by appointing respected academics and diplomats to key Latin posts, says Mr. Gamarra. The high point in US-Latin relations came in early December 1994 when Clinton hosted the Summit of the Americas in Miami, which set a timetable for creating a free-trade zone of the Americas by 2005.
But Mexico's peso crisis in December 1994 set back Latin America's cause. Next, growing US concerns about the effect on jobs of free-trade pacts threw off the schedule for Chile's entry into NAFTA.
But perhaps most important, ''Clinton had to spend his time on problematic issues'' like Bosnia, Russia, the Middle East, and China, says Gamarra, ''and Latin America was not problematic.''
That reality is reflected in Secretary Christopher's travel agenda. In more than three years he has visited the Middle East 17 times but Latin America only three times - brief trips to Haiti and Mexico.
Victim of own success
Over the past decade, Latin America has made a remarkable transition from authoritarian to democratic governments, from state-run to free-market economies, and from widespread human rights abuses to one of the better human rights records in the world. The US could afford to ignore it.
But with issues like inter-regional trade and Latin America's poverty joining such heated US issues as drug trafficking and immigration on the Americas' stage, Christopher couldn't push that luxury too far. His eight-day trip recognizes that.
''At every stop he's going to be focusing on the broad themes that were highlighted at the Summit of the Americas,'' says a senior State Department official, ''democracy, open markets, fighting international crime and drugs, protecting the environment, using resources well, addressing problems of social equality.''
With Christopher carrying no dramatic bilateral agreements or trade accords in his baggage, observers agree the trip's emphasis is simply on what a secretary of state's presence says - that the spirit of Miami really is alive.
Yet Christopher's visit, already mired somewhat in the aftermath of Cuba's downing of two private American aircraft Saturday, could hit another flat note Friday when Clinton announces the annual list of countries the US ''certifies'' as cooperating in the drug war.
If Latin American countries such as Colombia or even Mexico are dropped from the list, the trip's theme of cooperation could be jeopardized.
In Argentina, where Christopher will meet leaders and business representatives and attend a ceremony of appreciation for Argentina's international peacekeeping forces, officials say the visit is acknowledgment that the regional free-trade goal, though a slow process, is on track.
''We recognize this is a special year in the US because of the coming elections, but the important point is that the schedule set at Miami for creating the trade area is being kept,'' says Fernando Petrella, secretary of foreign relations in Buenos Aires. ''It's something not just the US but all of us have to work at.''