ON his way to Punta del Este, Uruguay, for the 1967 summit meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders, President Lyndon Johnson was struck by anxiety. It was one o'clock in the morning, probably somewhere above the Amazon, when he called Organization of American States (OAS) Ambassador Sol Linowitz, the chief summit organizer, to his side and asked him what they were going there for. Now that the Clinton administration is assembling the first hemispheric summit (to be held later this year in the United States) since Punta del Este, it needs answers to Mr. Johnson's question.
The difficulty will not be in defining the agenda for the meeting or in gaining agreement on it from Latin American and Caribbean governments. There are four obvious agenda items:
The first is the future of regional trading arrangements, specifically how to move beyond the North American Free Trade Agreement and other subregional trade pacts toward a hemispheric free-trade system. Most attention will inevitably focus on whether, when, and how the US and its North American partners will open NAFTA to other members. Interestingly, the main item on the 1967 summit agenda was Latin American economic integration; the change is that the US and Canada are now part of the process.
The second theme is the continuing struggle to consolidate democratic practice in the Americas. Despite Latin America's impressive turn toward democracy, few of its countries can yet boast vigorous democratic institutions that represent the interests and protect the rights of all citizens and that subordinate armies to civilian authority. It will certainly be more productive to discuss these issues now than it was in 1967, when half the Latin American leaders at the summit were dictators.
Third, poverty and inequality have to be on the agenda, not only because they are morally offensive but also because social injustice threatens the region's prospects for economic growth and stable democracy. The uprising in southern Mexico and violent protests in Argentina are recent warnings.
Finally, the summit should explore how the US and Latin American nations can work together more effectively on such shared problems as environmental deterioration, drug trafficking, refugees, and the spread of conventional and nuclear weapons.
Formulating the agenda will be relatively easy. The more difficult task will be to decide what the administration wants the summit to accomplish. Will Washington be satisfied to reconfirm that the US and Latin America now share a common agenda and a consistent set of goals? Or will it also want to set in motion some concrete initiatives to accomplish those goals? Does President Clinton want to fortify friendships or pave the way for partnerships?
The summit will pay dividends in either case; in fact, it already has. By announcing it immediately after NAFTA's approval, Washington has sent a reassuring message to Latin America: that US interests in the region are not confined to Mexico but extend throughout Latin America.
Preparations for the meeting will force US policymaking officials to devote some thought to longer-range issues in US-Latin America relations and consult about those issues with Latin American governments and US nongovernmental organizations. Mr. Clinton and his senior advisers should gain both a better understanding of the region and the chance to engage its leaders. All this will leave US relations with the region better off.
The administration, however, could aim for a more ambitious outcome. That would require the participants to focus not only on issues but also on institutions.
Three institutions might be given particular importance at the summit. The OAS needs a stronger capacity to help safeguard and advance democratic practice and human rights in the hemisphere; that, in turn, will demand a stronger commitment to the OAS by the US and other governments, as well as needed internal reforms. The Inter-American Development Bank needs increased resources and greater organizational agility to tackle more effectively the poverty and inequality in Latin America. And a new multilateral mechanism is needed to guide and coordinate progress toward a hemispheric free-trade system. Despite the importance that every country of the Americas now gives to trade and economic integration, no organization currently has the mandate and expertise to exercise leadership on these issues.
The summit's significance will be mostly determined by what happens later - whether the participating countries put into practice and remain committed to the agreements reached. According to Ambassador Linowitz, ``The Punta del Este communique included a 23-page action program, which did not produce a great deal of action.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.