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Bush's Latin Theme

PRESIDENT Bush's plan to aid Latin America may promise more than it can deliver, given Washington's budget crunch and the hemisphere's weighty problems. And its major elements - lessening the debt burden, strengthening trade relationships, opening doors to private investment - repeat familiar themes. The president has picked the right moment, however, to show an active interest in the huge region to the south. Latin Americans have watched ruefully as world attention and aid resources gravitated to Eastern Europe. Mr. Bush reaffirmed that prosperity and functioning democracy in the Western hemisphere remains a critical concern - not only for the US, but Europe and Japan as well.

Concerning debt, the administration promises to relieve Latin nations of a significant part of the $12 billion they owe the US. This is an important step symbolically, putting the US government squarely out front in efforts to relieve the region's debt burden. It reenforces Treasury Secretary Brady's debt-reduction plan. The amount of debt relief promised is small compared to the total foreign obligations weighing down Latin economies, but it's a lead that others can follow.

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Bush's proposals to lower barriers to trade between the US and Latin America are welcome too. Greater access to the world's largest market could brighten prospects in many countries that have fretted over US quotas and tariffs. The president foresees a free-trade system stretching throughout the Americas, a vision that at the least evokes a more cooperative future.

Other elements in the plan include a $300 million fund administered by the Inter-American Development Bank to promote privatization and stronger markets and increased support for programs to swap debt for the preservation of rain forests. Good ideas all.

But can they reach Latin America's fundamental problems: economic mismanagement, rapid population growth, gross inequities in the distribution of wealth? Like other reform ideas being applied in the region, they're a start. The goal has to be a consistent clearing away of economic wreckage until countries begin to experience less chaos and individuals begin to see more hope.

The Bush plan, adhered to and supported to the limits possible in an era of budgetary retrenchment, can contribute to that process. Most of the work, clearly, is on the shoulders of Latin Americans themselves. But a North American commitment to not only repeat old promises, but follow them up with consistent, sustained action, has to help.

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