Latin Trip: a Fast Track Lap

To no one's great surprise, President Clinton's trip last week to South America - the first since he took office - was largely uneventful. Unlike his visit earlier this year to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, this time there were no conflictive issues to be resolved, nor urgent requests to be considered. No major policy pronouncements were made, and no grand projects were launched. The president simply visited and consulted with his counterparts in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela to build closer economic and political ties.

The importance of this effort, however, should not be underestimated. Three results of the trip are worth mention. Whether they turn out to be significant or enduring depends on the willingness of the US and other governments to invest energy in strengthening bilateral and multilateral relationships.

Commitment to free trade

First, Clinton had the opportunity personally to affirm that the US is firmly committed to regional free trade and hemispheric economic integration. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, confidence in the US commitment to these goals has dropped sharply since the Miami Summit of the Americas in December 1994.

The reason is plain. Only last month, the Clinton administration formally presented legislation requesting congressional approval for the fast-track authority needed to negotiate trade agreements, the essential basis for regional cooperation. Without fast track for three years, the US was unable to make good on its pledge to bring Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In addition, the US has failed to put in place new trade arrangements to protect small Caribbean and Central American states from NAFTA-induced diversion of trade and investment toward Mexico. In South America, the president left no doubts about his personal commitment to the free flow of commerce and investment.

He also made it clear the US considers Brazil and Argentina solid partners, not rivals or adversaries.

Just as important, the president and his most senior foreign policy advisers gained firsthand impressions of the size, energy, and economic potential of all three nations.

A fresh sense of South America

They have now seen the endless skyscrapers and great industrial power of Sao Paulo, and experienced the vibrancy and sophistication of Buenos Aires. They've had hours of discussion with the national leadership of each county - and acquired a grasp of the problems they face, and of the ambitions and fears they have for their nations.

The White House team knows better than ever how much the US has to gain by building strong links with Latin America. A fresh sense of the people and the places should energize Clinton and his Cabinet for the battle over fast track.

Nudging reform

While appropriately celebrating Latin America's democratic advances, the president also conveyed US concerns about the region's political failures - human rights abuses, violations of press freedoms, neglect of social and economic inequalities, pervasive corruption, and others.

Critics may be right, though, that had Clinton spoken more forcefully on these matters, he'd have made a stronger contribution to badly needed reforms. On this score, it was the first lady who proved particularly adept in raising the issues and demonstrating support for change. In Buenos Aires, she addressed sensitive questions concerning the status and rights of women. Her message, enthusiastically received by the largely female audience, will surely have an impact on politics and policy.

Energized and informed, Clinton must now fully engage to win the congressional battle for fast track. Whatever goodwill Clinton generated in Latin America will be reinforced by sustained White House interest in the region - and by success in securing the authority to negotiate new hemisphere-wide trade arrangements. It will also set the stage for a productive second meeting of the hemisphere's leaders in April in Chile. Nothing the US could do would be more welcome in Latin America and the Caribbean.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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