IN six weeks, President Clinton will host 35 Western Hemisphere presidents and prime ministers in Miami. Only Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz will be missing. The Summit of the Americas will be a historic event: Never has the hemisphere boasted so many constitutional leaders, and never have so many Latin American and Caribbean heads of state assembled in the United States. The question is whether it will also be an important event - whether it will provide the opportunity for accelerating progress toward greater economic and political cooperation in the hemisphere.
The challenge will be to keep the summit focused on key themes and resist pressures to deal with a potpourri of issues. Highest priority should go to two goals that can only be achieved through regional initiatives and the action of many countries: setting the groundwork to build a hemisphere linked by free trade; and strengthening the capacity of the Organization of American States (OAS) to safeguard democracy and human rights.
Most Latin American and Caribbean countries welcomed the announcement of the summit, primarily because they considered it a signal that the US was ready to move beyond NAFTA and take the initiative in forging hemisphere-wide free-trade arrangements. Free trade is what they most want to discuss in Miami.
But that goal has already suffered two setbacks in Congress this year. The White House was unable to secure fast-track negotiating authority, which is vital for trade talks to proceed with potential hemispheric partners. Efforts were also defeated to establish transitional arrangements for the smaller countries of Central America and the Caribbean.
It is more important than ever that the Clinton administration make clear its continuing commitment to work with Latin American governments to construct a hemispheric free-trade system.
To do so convincingly at this point, the US should join with its NAFTA associates, Mexico and Canada, to put forth the conditions and procedures for adding other countries to NAFTA. It should immediately invite Chile to begin accession negotiations and encourage other subregional trade groups like Mercosur to also set out entry requirements.
The US should also propose a regional mechanism to guide progress toward hemispheric economic integration.