Latin America to the Fore

President Clinton's Latin American trip has affirmed the importance of hemispheric relations. Of late, the world's points of crisis - the Middle East, Bosnia - have drawn Washington's attention far from neighbors to the south.

But those neighbors have always occupied a unique place in the US world view. Historically, that place has been associated with attempted dominance - i.e., Yankee imperialism. Recently, drugs and illegal immigration have tainted ties.

Even those problems, however, pale in comparison with remarkably positive developments.

Every country in South America has a measure of democracy. There may be kinks in the way courts or legislatures function. Human rights abuses are all too common. Corruption is often rampant. And millions remain desperately poor. But, overall, the region has come a long way since military juntas were the norm.

In tandem with political enlightenment has come economic liberalization. Once-insular economies are opening to trade and investment.

What this means, increasingly, is greater self-confidence in places such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela. These countries are crafting their own economic relationships - such as the Mercosur trade block in the southern cone. Yearly growth rates (Argentina's is 8 percent) are impressive. Brazil, with some 165 million people and bountiful resources, is an economic comer. Trade deals are being cut with Europe and Japan.

Back in the US, meanwhile, doubts mount that President Clinton will get from Congress the "fast track" negotiating authority he needs to pursue expanded free trade in the hemisphere.

Why? Because the administration has not given this project the unrelenting public backing it needs, and protectionist impulses in the president's own party have filled the political void.

There's still time, however, to convince the US public that expanded free trade will produce more jobs than it will siphon off. To convince Congress this is an opportunity not to be missed. And to assure any Latin American skeptics that trade partnership with the US will not be just another vehicle for US dominance.

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