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Time to Pick Up the Pace On Latin America

United States policy toward Latin America has been stalled for the past two years. First the Mexican peso crisis and then the presidential elections took the steam out of most US initiatives in the region. It will not, however, take much to revitalize US policy, given that US relations in the hemisphere are fundamentally sound. Washington must demonstrate its commitment to free trade in the Americas, but it must also curb its unilateral impulses, particularly with regard to Cuba and Colombia.

Latin American governments will be watching to determine whether Washington is ready to reassert leadership on the trade agenda. The first crucial signal will be the effort the White House makes to secure "fast track" negotiating authority from Congress so that it can negotiate Chile's entry into NAFTA (fulfilling a two-year-old pledge) and credibly commit to broader hemisphere-wide free-trade talks.

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Approval of fast track won't be easy. It may require the administration to stand up to attacks on NAFTA, Mexico, and free trade in general. The White House also will have to accept GOP demands that trade agreements be delinked from labor and environmental standards, and to then invest political capital to get Democratic support. It's critical for the trade agenda that the president work for legislation to extend some NAFTA benefits to the Caribbean and Central America. This NAFTA parity is needed to stem the diversion of investment from that subregion to Mexico.

These trade initiatives would, by themselves, do a good deal to reinvigorate US relations with Latin America. But there are other measures that also would strengthen cooperation with the region.

Liberalize US policy

The worldwide opposition to the Helms-Burton legislation, coupled with the upcoming visit of the Pope to Cuba, provides an opportunity for the administration to consider liberalizing US policy - including expanding family, academic, and cultural exchanges; facilitating humanitarian assistance; and augmenting cooperation with Cuba in areas of mutual interest like drug interdiction and weather forecasting.

On Colombia, the US should accept that President Samper will remain in office until his term ends, continue to seek Colombia's cooperation on narcotics, and let it resolve its internal political problems.

US-Mexican relations are today mutually satisfactory on most matters. The continuing - and not-so-easy - challenge for US policy is to communicate its support for democratic change in Mexico and promote cooperation on a range of border issues, without getting involved in the country's domestic politics.

The US should find Brazil and Argentina more compatible partners than ever, as both countries have become increasingly visible leaders in South America. Washington should understand that it is not in competition with Brazil. Instead, we should recognize the value of having Brazil play a strong leadership role on hemispheric issues.

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Any increase in foreign assistance to Latin America seems far-fetched, but the US should be doing more to help the government of Haiti and to support the Guatemalan peace process. Though there are Panamanians and Americans calling for US troops to remain in Panama after that country takes charge of the Canal, this should not be seriously considered. It would risk divisive debates in both countries and offers few benefits.

Maintain weapons ban

The administration shouldn't lift its ban on high-tech weapon sales in Latin America until the region can agree on procedures for the purchase and use of such weapons. Deepening trade and investment links among South American countries and their commitment to democracy make this an opportune moment for developing new security and arms arrangements.

The second Summit of the Americas, bringing together the hemisphere's presidents, will take place in Chile in early 1998 - three years after the first summit in Miami. Because summit preparations and follow-up have become the main focus of multilateral activity in the hemisphere, the US and others should give the Organization of American States central responsibility for coordinating the summits, thereby strengthening this pillar of inter-American cooperation.

In a recent New York Times interview, President Clinton said his No. 1 international concern when first elected was that "America make the most of its relationships with Latin America." His administration made a strong start in his first two years - with the approval of NAFTA, the Summit of the Americas, and the successful effort to prevent Mexico's financial collapse. But then it lost momentum.

If the president picks up the pace again, particularly on the trade issues, the next four years can be a period of renewed vigor and cooperation in hemispheric relations.

Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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