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Message From Miami

THE noise you hear from the ``Summit of the Americas'' in Miami this weekend will be more trade barriers beginning to crack apart.

In January, it will be a year since NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links the United States, Mexico, and Canada) took effect. Earlier this fall, the forum of Pacific Rim countries called APEC took steps to create a free-trade area by 2020. Last week, Congress approved GATT, the 123-nation General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

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Now the Miami summit of North and South American presidents and prime ministers (only Cuba's Fidel Castro will not attend) is expected to call for a Western Hemisphere free-trade area within 10 years.

The remarkable economic and political progress in Latin America has been underreported in the US news media. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen has pointed out that 60 percent of US export growth in the past year has been in this region. It is also the only region in which the US has a substantial trade surplus.

With another round of GATT unlikely in the foreseeable future, lowering trade barriers region by region is the next step. North America responded to the European Union with NAFTA; the EU was influenced to push ahead with GATT by US overtures to the Pacific Rim. And so, region by region, the barriers fall.

The Western Hemisphere already has 23 subregional free-trade accords, including Mercosur, a pact between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay that creates a market with a total population of about 300 million. This ``web'' of accords can be used as a transition to the free-trade area from the Arctic Circle to Terra del Fuego that President Bush called for.

A host of other issues that require international cooperation will get an airing at the summit: battling drug trafficking, money laundering, and terrorism; protecting the environment; and human rights, including women's rights and labor rights. Huge disparities in incomes - the wealthiest 20 percent of Mexicans, for example, are 27 times as rich as the poorest - remain a destabilizing force.

No one pretends that some of the Latin democracies are not fragile or less democratic than desirable. But when this group of Western Hemisphere leaders - all of whom were elected by their people - gathers for the traditional ``photo op,'' it will symbolize a mighty achievement.

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