Opportunities, Not Problems, Fill Unfinished Latin Agenda

From April 1997 to April 1998, President Clinton visited Latin America three times, and participated in the hemisphere's second summit of elected heads of state in Santiago, Chile. The good will and cooperation now characterizing US-Latin American relations can be credited, in part, to this unprecedented level of presidential attention - and to the leadership of the administration's senior hemispheric policy officials. The president, however, has no plans to travel again to the region. White House envoy Mack McLarty will soon return to private life, and Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Davidow will become ambassador in Mexico. Yet, there remains a long, unfinished agenda in inter-American affairs.

* Gaining congressional approval for fast track - which Mr. Clinton promised the assembled presidents in Santiago - should top administration priorities. Without this authority, US efforts to shape and advance regional free-trade arrangements are hamstrung - at a time commerce is the cornerstone of US-Latin American cooperation. The administration has to begin now to mobilize support for fast track and free trade. As a start, the president needs to better inform Americans about the benefits of NAFTA, and squarely address the controversial issues of environment and labor rights.

* Special trade legislation is required for Central America and the Caribbean, as a step toward fully free trade. They are, after all, part of North America and should be NAFTA members. Instead, they face a NAFTA-induced diversion of trade and investment toward Mexico, compounding a spiraling decline in US aid.

* Achieving the goal of hemispheric free trade by 2005 depends on the US reaching agreement with Brazil and Argentina. We should expect hard bargaining, but a mutually beneficial agreement is surely possible. In addition, Brazil and Argentina should be regarded as key US allies on a range of global issues.

* No foreign relationship is more crucial to the US than that with Mexico. This is a relationship that has to be made to work. A sustained US investment is required to strengthen institutional mechanisms of cooperation, many of which are already in place. Unilateral efforts to deal with any of our joint problems is bound to be counterproductive.

* The administration should work with other governments, as agreed at the summit, to develop multilateral mechanisms to assess the antidrug performance of every hemispheric nation (including the US). This mechanism will not immediately replace the US's own, much resented certification process, but it may reduce the damage it causes.

* Other summit agreements, in areas like education and poverty, if implemented, can improve the well-being of this hemisphere's citizens. Every government bears responsibility, but a strong US commitment will energize others.

* US immigration laws should be aligned with our key foreign policy objectives. For example, US criminal deportations may be contributing to the crime and violence undermining confidence in democracy in many countries. How we treat immigrants will increasingly affect our relations with other countries.

* The administration still has no strategy to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. Ideally, the US would engage Cuba and begin to try to shape change there. The US should facilitate efforts by Cuban-Americans to build links with people and institutions in Cuba.

* With new President Andres Pastrana soon taking office, the US needs to develop a more constructive relationship with Colombia. We should start by ending our fixation on drugs and guerrillas, and forging more respectful and broad-based ties across the range of our mutual interests.

* No matter how frustrating, the administration must stay the course in Haiti, to help establish an economic and political order that works.

* The US should work to mobilize the support of other governments for revitalizing the Organization of American States and expanding its role.

* US control over the Panama Canal ends in December 1999. This historic event should not be marred by squabbles over secondary issues, including whether some US troops remain in Panama.

Outstanding differences need to be resolved soon - and the transfer appropriately celebrated. Clinton should consider making another visit to Latin America to join the celebration.

Strikingly, this agenda contains more opportunities than problems - meaning we have a great deal to gain from sustained policy attention to Western Hemisphere affairs.

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

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