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Clinton Plays Catch-Up in S. America

President's trip this week - his first to South America since taking office - is aimed at shoring up lost US influence.

As President Clinton this week makes his long-awaited first visit to South America since taking office, the reality is dawning that Mr. Clinton and the United States need this trip more than do the countries the president is visiting.

During a seven-day journey that will take him to Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, Clinton will see a continent that, although once dismissed as America's backyard, is emerging as a fast-growing region that is both consolidating into an economic force and expanding its ties to Europe and Asia. In the meantime, US leadership has grown dusty and tarnished.

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The president has a chance to restore that shine, analysts say. But they acknowledge that Clinton's late start and the negative mood at home toward international trade in general and Latin America specifically - often reduced to questions of drug-trafficking and illegal immigration - don't make his task easy.

"The United States has already surrendered its leadership in trade [issues] in the region," says Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami.

"The administration can use this trip to begin putting the US back in the forefront of Latin American affairs," adds Mr. Gamarra, who testified before Congress on US-Latin relations last week. "But there's quite a bit of catching up to do," he says.

Every US president since Reagan made a trip to South America within the first years of his presidency. Clinton, first elected in 1992, is only now traveling south of Central America. At the Miami Summit of the Americas in December 1994 the President pushed the 34 countries of the hemisphere (excluding Cuba) to commit to creating an Aleutians-to-Antarctica free-trade area (FTA) by 2005, and announced that Chile would join the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, club by the end of 1995.

But nearly three years later the FTA remains largely a concept - and a controversial one at that, in the eyes of countries like Brazil. And a snubbed Chile has moved in other directions: Signing on as an associate member of the Mercosur customs union binding Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay, and expanding ties to Europe. "We know we live in a world of the one-man show" after the fall of the Soviet Union, says one Brazilian official, "but while the US has been focused on China, Bosnia and the Middle East, we haven't been sitting waiting for some attention. The truth," he adds, "is that for us Mercosur is something functioning now and taking us ever closer to our most important foreign partner [Argentina], while the [FTA] has achieved little beyond rhetoric."

Clinton will indeed be talking about trade during his trip. The US sold more goods to Brazil last year than to China, and Latin America's growth prospects - especially when set against the stagnant or uncertain economic conditions in other regions - make it attractive to US exporters. Argentina, for example, is expected to grow at an 8 percent clip this year.

But despite the importance of exports to the US economy, Americans remain ambivalent about more trade agreements on the order of NAFTA. Those mixed emotions show through in the current debate in Congress over "fast-track" legislation, which would grant the president authority to negotiate new international trade accords subject only to a simple yes or no vote in Congress. The legislation crossed one hurdle last week when it survived a House Ways and Means Committee vote. But Clinton's failure to muster much support among committee Democrats leaves the measure with an uncertain future, analysts say.

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Given the congressional climate, Clinton's trip takes on new importance in terms of the impact it can have at home. He can use it to convince Americans of what he believes: that foreign trade is essential for the country's continued economic well-being.

With Clinton unable to tell Latin America that passage of "fast-track" legislation is assured, the president is seeking to focus his trip on other issues. He also wants to establish the idea that US interest in Latin America is about more than just trade before next April's second Summit of the Americas in Chile.

In Venezuela, which is experiencing an oil boom that is enabling the US to lessen its energy dependence on the volatile Middle East, Clinton will talk about energy and the environment; in Brazil, about education, where he will unveil a large binational project for promoting technological adaptations to education; and in Argentina, about security issues and sustained economic development.

The smoothest sailing for Clinton will likely come at the end of his trip in Argentina, which in the 1990s has dramatically shifted foreign policy to a pro-US stance. "All the opposition that Argentina traditionally voiced to the US has collapsed," says Felipe de la Balze, an Argentine political analyst with a new book on the US-Argentine relationship. "It's now a close collaboration with none of the negatives that mark other [Latin] relationships" like drugs or illegal immigration," he says.

Clinton is only the fifth US president to visit Argentina - the first was Teddy Roosevelt, who came hunting pumas - so that alone makes the visit "quite an event," says Mr. de la Balze.

But he adds that the agenda "is really not so important." Clinton will discuss proposed US designation of Argentina as a "major non-NATO" partner. Clinton could actually give Argentine President Carlos Menem a boost in difficult mid-term elections later in the month, some analysts say.

The consensus, however, is that the trip is likely to do more for Clinton than for his hosts. "This trip should help [Clinton] get a feel for Latin America and decide if he wants to face the political risk of really pushing" for free trade in the region, says de la Balze. "We can't see that the necessary conviction is there yet."

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