US-Latin Policy Changes Modest, but Important

The Clinton administration deserves high marks for two recent policy initiatives toward Latin America and the Caribbean.

The first is a series of humanitarian measures toward Cuba, which have been extensively reported in the media. The second is the skillful management of this year's process for certifying which countries are, and which are not, reliable US allies in the war against drugs. This, in contrast, has gotten almost no publicity, which is the surest sign that it has been done right.

The Cuba measures will modestly help ordinary Cuban people who are suffering the consequences of their country's economic and political failures. They will make it easier for Cuban-Americans to assist friends and family still living in Cuba, and facilitate the efforts of churches and other charitable organizations to deliver medical aid to their counterparts in Cuba. Responding to the spirit of Pope John Paul II's appeals during his visit to Cuba, these administration initiatives are sensible and humane. The US embargo is not a major cause of Cuba's deteriorating health and nutrition standards, but still our national policy should be directed to reducing, not aggravating, deprivation on the island.

The question is whether these small steps will be followed by other US actions to engage Cuba and help shape the course of change that is under way there, or whether the US will choose to remain on the sidelines, hoping for the best. The answer depends, first and foremost, on the reaction of the Cuban-American community in Miami and elsewhere.

Over the past several years, the community has been generously (if not quite legally) responding to Cuba's desperate needs by sending hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and supplies annually. Now that such transfers are once again lawful, the chances are that the amount of gifts and remittances will rise further, that visits to Cuba will become more frequent, and that Cuban-Americans will seek additional policy changes to aid compatriots on the island. Their willingness to help will intensify if the authorities in Havana do their share by responding constructively to the new US measures, through words and actions. They can, for example, free more political prisoners, ease restrictions on speech and association, and allow markets to operate more freely.

For the first time in recent memory, the annual drug certification process has not provoked serious strains in US relations with Latin American and Caribbean countries. Each March, US law requires the president to judge the anti-narcotics efforts of other countries and to "decertify" those that are not fully cooperating with the US. Colombia had been decertified outright for the past two years, but - although its anti-drug performance was still found wanting - the White House softened its approach this year by granting the country a waiver, on national security grounds, of any penalties. That alone has already reduced tensions in US-Colombian relations.

The US has always fully certified Mexico, but each year Mexican authorities are virulently criticized in Congress for their drug war failures, and sometimes even threatened with a congressional override of the president's certification decision - all of which tends to embitter the US-Mexican relationship for a time. Although Congress still has until the end of the month to act, the legislative reaction to Mexico's certification has so far been muted, far more so than in any year in the past five. One important reason is that the US and Mexican administrations, despite differences on many of the issues involved, have been working intensively together over many months to develop a joint antidrug strategy. The strategy is far from perfect and it will be difficult to implement fully, but the fact is that nowhere are two governments trying harder to develop effective bilateral approaches to their shared drug problems.

Perhaps of even greater long-term significance, the US government is working with Latin American and Caribbean governments to design a multilateral process for reviewing and reporting on the anti-drug performance of every country in the Americas, including the US itself. Such a multilateral effort is unlikely soon to replace the US certification process, but it would be a welcome start toward more effective regional cooperation on drugs.

The changes in US policy toward Cuba and in our handling of the antinarcotics battle are modest, but refreshing. On their own, they will produce useful results and contribute to improved inter-American relations and - with some political courage and luck - they could open the way to a badly needed rethinking and recasting of policy on both fronts.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue and a regular contributor to the Monitor.

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