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.
The summit is also the right opportunity - particularly since a new secretary-general, the former president of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, just took office last month - for the governments of the hemisphere to agree on a program of action for the OAS. It should become a mechanism for strengthening basic institutions of democracy in the region, for protecting democratic rule and human rights when they are threatened, and for responding vigorously to breakdown in the constitutional order.
This requires that the secretary-general be given more authority, money, and staff to head off trouble before it comes. When elections are held, the OAS needs to be on the scene to let everyone know whether the voting was fair. And when vote fraud is serious enough, the OAS needs to take action that gets the attention of the powers that be in the country. In addition, the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights need more staff and resources and they should direct their work more toward individual human rights violations. The assembled leaders should also begin recasting or dismantling regional security institutions and treaties that have outlived their initial purposes - and make sure that all of them are reinforcing democratic norms.
The summit will help focus attention on other critical questions, such as how to improve the quality of democratic practice in the hemisphere and how to reduce poverty and inequality. It would be a step forward if the presidents and prime ministers collectively faced up to the failings of democracy in their countries and committed to political renewal and social advance.
But agreements at the summit will not help much. These problems must be confronted within each nation by that nation's government and citizens.
The summit will be a test of leadership and commitment to hemispheric community - by the US and the other governments of the Americas. The criteria for success are whether the summit produces an agreed-upon blueprint for progress toward regional free trade and a plan for enabling the OAS to better defend democracy and human rights. 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.