The opportunity to establish an enduring framework of political and economic cooperation in the Americas is today within reach. But the United States and other governments must grasp this opportunity soon - or it will fade.
* First, it is imperative that the Clinton administration make an all-out effort to secure fast-track authority this year so that the US can credibly engage in hemispheric free-trade discussions. Nothing would signal the US commitment to regional economic integration more than an energetic White House campaign for fast track and its prompt approval by Congress.
* Second, the US should move quickly to enhance trading arrangements with the Caribbean basin countries and begin to negotiate reciprocal free-trade agreements with them.
* Third, it is time that the US join with other nations of the Americas to develop a common, multilateral strategy to confront illicit narcotics and the related problems of money laundering, illegal flows of arms and precursor chemicals, and besieged democratic institutions. This will require that the US abandon its unilateral drug certification process.
* Fourth, US policy should recognize that it is self-defeating for Washington to act in isolation in its Cuban policy. The declared US objective in Cuba - peaceful change to democratic rule - is shared by every government in this hemisphere. Other governments are prepared to work with the US to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba, but Washington must be willing to consult and to moderate its uncompromising approach.
Past progress uneven
In the 2-1/2 years since the Summit of the Americas, held in Miami in December 1994, progress toward building a more cooperative and integrated hemisphere has been uneven. To be sure, governments and private organizations in the hemisphere have collaborated on many issues.
Multilateral efforts prevented a military takeover in Paraguay and restored peace between Peru and Ecuador. Monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) helped to assure the fairness of presidential elections in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Subregional cooperation has been even more vigorous. The presidents of Central America have initiated regular, twice-yearly meetings. The four Mercosur nations - Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay - have strengthened their economic group and incorporated Chile and Bolivia as associate members.
Countries also have been working toward the goals of the Miami summit. The hemisphere's trade ministers have been meeting regularly. Regional working groups have been established on all key trade issues, and they have made important technical advances. Ministers of defense have assembled twice to explore ways to improve inter-American collaboration on security matters.
Yet confidence in the future of hemispheric cooperation has diminished. Progress toward hemisphere-wide free trade has been slower than expected. Despite the election in 1994 of a highly regarded new secretary-general, Csar Gaviria, the OAS has not gained significantly in stature or credibility. Most nations oppose expanding its financing or mandate, or making necessary changes in its structure and operations.
US policy is partly to blame for the slowdown. Without fast-track authority Washington has been unable to: (1) fulfill its pledge to bring Chile into NAFTA, or (2) initiate free-trade negotiations with other Latin American or Caribbean governments. It also has failed to establish an interim trade arrangement for the nations of the Caribbean and Central America to help stem the diversion of their trade and investment toward Mexico.
US policy on two other fronts - Cuba and illicit drugs - raised concerns about Washington's commitment to cooperation in hemispheric relations. On both issues, Washington unilaterally designed and implemented new coercive policies, despite the opposition of every other country of the Americas and many beyond.
The momentum toward greater cooperation in the hemisphere has slowed, but its has not yet reversed.
What, then, will it take to reinvigorate hemispheric cooperation?
Given its size, wealth, power, and global reach, the US has a central role to play in pointing the way toward stronger hemispheric cooperation. But the joint efforts of every country of the hemisphere will be required to build cooperation in inter-American relations. Over the next several years these efforts should focus on three main priorities.
The national challenges. Genuine inter-American cooperation can be built only on the foundations of strong national communities. Free, periodic elections are essential for any democracy, and today they are characteristic of nearly every country in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Now countries face the more difficult "second generation" challenge of building solid democratic institutions - legislatures, parties, labor unions, judicial systems, local governments, and civic and community organizations - that can effectively deliver public services and are accountable to citizens. In most countries, these institutions are weak and unreliable.
Market-oriented reforms have improved economic performance throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, but growth remains disappointing, sluggish, and volatile. Long-term economic expansion also will require a second, more difficult stage of institutional restructuring. Nations have to remake key economic institutions, private and public. They have to raise the competitiveness of the private sector, effectively regulate new and expanded economic activities, reform labor and civil service legislation, boost tax revenues and national savings, and make education a force for change.
The most critical internal challenge confronting the nations of the Americas today is how to raise living standards and reduce inequality. Nothing is more important for the future of Latin America than the struggle against poverty and social injustice. There are no quick or easy solutions. It will take long-term commitment and forceful government action on many fronts over decades. Nations must invest more in improving conditions for women and girls as well as disadvantaged minorities. Quality education can no longer be reserved for elite groups. And governmental action will not, by itself, be enough. Strong nongovernmental organizations and socially responsible business communities also will be vital.
Economic integration. The future of cooperation in the Americas hinges on rapid movement toward hemispheric free trade and economic integration. There is no single best path to achieve this objective. But it is important that governments choose a common course soon and stick to it. Most important, the nations have to reach agreement on the principles and goals that should guide economic integration efforts.
Multilateral institutions. The problems and weaknesses of the OAS stand in the way of multilateral cooperation in the hemisphere. The future of the OAS should be a priority issue at the next summit meeting in Santiago in March 1998. Genuine hemispheric cooperation requires effective hemispheric institutions.
The countries of the Western Hemisphere are closer than ever before to regional economic integration and meaningful political cooperation. Today, a series of small, practical steps can produce historic progress toward more enduring and productive ties among all nations of the Americas.
* This article is adapted from the Inter-American Dialogue's recently published report, "The Americas in 1997: Making Cooperation Work."