Time to engage Central and South America, too

Most Latin Americans were pleased that President Bush made his first foreign trip to Mexico, seeing it as the necessary forerunner of the enhanced US attention to the entire region that Mr. Bush has pledged. Bush knows the United States comes out ahead economically and politically when its close neighbors progress.

But the president's trip to Mexico has to be followed by initiatives that engage South and Central America, too. Invitations to Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardoso and Colombian President Andres Pastrana to visit Washington in the coming weeks are promising signs.

In overall US-Latin relations, Mexico was the right place to start. No country in the world affects the lives of Americans as much as Mexico, and vice versa. Mexico buys more from and sells more to the US than any country except Canada. Almost as many US immigrants come from Mexico as from the rest of the world combined. US relations with Mexico are better today than at any time in memory - and there is every reason to expect them to improve further.

Most Latin American countries want from Washington what Mexico already has: a free-trade arrangement providing secure access to US markets and investment capital. They want a clear signal of the Bush administration's commitment to hemisphere-wide free trade, meaning that the White House has to move quickly to renew fast track negotiating authority, which expired in 1993.

Achieving that authority from Congress will require the White House to compromise with Democratic lawmakers on how labor and environment issues should be addressed in trade talks. Without compromise, there will likely be no fast track, which will be taken as an unambiguous sign that hemispheric relations are not a high priority for the administration. Another bad sign would be the faltering of US free-trade negotiations with Chile, initiated in the Clinton administration's waning days.

Latin Americans will also be watching President Bush's choices with regard to Colombia. While appreciating Colombia's need for help with drugs, criminals, and guerrillas, Latin American leaders are concerned that the massive US aid effort is too weighted toward military hardware, that Colombia's violence will spill into their territorities, and that US military involvement will escalate. They are also troubled that the United States did not consult with them in the shaping of its Colombia policy - a mistake that the Bush team can and should correct.

The administration faces challenges elsewhere in the Andes. It will have to be sure-footed to avoid provoking Venezuelan firebrand President Hugo Chavez into even greater anti-American defiance.

The US must also help Ecuador avert another cycle of political conflict and economic collapse and help the new Peruvian government, to be inaugurated in July, rebuild the nation's institutions after the Fujimori regime's disgraceful exit.

The concerns of the Caribbean and Central American countries were partially addressed last year when Congress approved trade legislation to put them on a more equal commercial footing with Mexico. The Bush administration should now seek to bring them into NAFTA. Washington also needs to review the practice of deporting convicted criminals back to their countries of origin in the Caribbean and Central America, which threatens democratic order in some places.

The Bush White House should avoid the temptation to follow the lead of its predecessor, which was to do as little as possible about Cuba. It should instead dismantle most US restrictions on trade and other areas, and shift to a policy of dialogue and engagement to prepare the way for a transition toward democracy. This would command majority support in Congress, and be applauded throughout Latin America.

Haiti may be a bigger challenge than Cuba, with its economy and institutions wrecked, and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide unwilling to accept even minimal democratic competition. To have any chance of success, the Bush team must end US partisan conflict over Haiti, work aggressively with other countries to nudge the Haitians in more positive directions, and support social and economic programs that offer hope for Haiti's impoverished people.

The Bush administration needs to invest far more than its predecessors in the US relationship with Brazil, the largest nation in Latin America. Brazil and the United States have divergent views on some important issues, including hemispheric free trade and US military aid to Colombia. But they can work productively together. Indeed, to succeed in his policies in Latin America, President Bush will need Brazil's cooperation on these and other key issues.

US policy toward Latin America has to start with Mexico. But it cannot stop there.

Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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