HIGHLIGHTED by the success of the Summit of the Americas - the United States-hosted meeting in December of Western Hemisphere presidents and prime ministers - 1994 was a good year for US policy on Latin America. Some key advances:
* After three years and numerous false starts, Washington redeemed its pledge to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti. It is still early for a definitive judgment, but the US has played a constructive role during Mr. Aristide's first months back in office.
* A dangerous confrontation last summer between the US and Cuba was defused, though prospects for dealing with the underlying problems seem more distant than ever.
* During what was and continues to be an extraordinarily difficult year for Mexico, Washington provided economic support and encouraged democratic change.
* The US helped avert a crisis in the Dominican Republic by crafting a compromise - calling for new elections within two years - between the government and opposition parties following electoral fraud that kept the opposition from obtaining the presidency.
* US relations with Brazil took a significant turn for the better largely because of events in Brazil, including a drop in inflation and the results of the October presidential elections.
* The US, Canada, and Mexico announced plans to bring Chile into their free-trade pact.
US policy did not succeed everywhere. Venezuela's new government remained wedded to its self-destructive economic policies, despite good advice from Washington. The US was unable to bring the Guatemalan Army and rebels any closer to a peace accord, and the US continued to allow the drug trade to hobble its relations with Colombia.
All in all, the Miami summit was the main event for US-Latin American relations in '94. The meeting itself and the final declaration of the hemisphere's leaders reaffirmed the impressive convergence of interests and values that has taken place between the US and Latin American and Caribbean nations. It also produced a constructive and (for the most part) practical plan of action that will set the agenda for inter-American affairs. The focus will and should be on carrying out the 34-nation agreement to forge a free-trade area that incorporates every country of the Americas by 2005. But accords were reached on other goals as well - advancing democracy and human rights, strengthening the Organization of American States (OAS), protecting the environment, and reducing poverty and inequality.
Transforming the advances of the past year into more enduring achievements is the main challenge for US hemispheric policy in '95. Several tasks must be accomplished:
1. The US should move quickly to prepare the way for free-trade talks - to get Chile into NAFTA and to begin plotting a course toward broader hemisphere-wide trade arrangements. The most important discussions will be those between the US and its NAFTA partners on the one hand and the four countries of the Mercosur, led by Brazil, on the other. An agreement on strategy and goals between these two trading groups, which represent the bulk of the hemisphere's economic activity, is key to building a free-trade area.
2. There will be less momentum propelling implementation of the nontrade initiatives agreed to at the summit. Most of the initiatives depend on the actions of individual governments rather than on a collective effort. The US can help by working with the OAS, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other countries to turn the initiatives into more concrete and comprehensive proposals.
3. Because the risks of backsliding are so great in Haiti, the US must avoid a precipitous withdrawal of troops or general flagging of support. US-Cuba relations should not be left to fester under a policy driven only by domestic politics; the US should organize an external policy review independent of partisan politics. It should sustain efforts to end the Guatemalan civil war and improve the way it works with Colombia and other drug-source countries.
More than anything else, 1995 will be an opportunity for US hemispheric policy to build on this year's successes - particularly the commitment to regional free trade. 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.