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US-Latin America policy running on empty

Washington's relations with Latin America now appear as good as they've ever been. These ties are largely devoid of conflict, anti-Americanism has diminished sharply, and governments throughout the region seek greater economic cooperation with the US.

These favorable circumstances, however, reflect accomplishments earlier this decade, and are now sustained mostly by inertia. US policy today is running on empty. Across the board, Washington's initiatives toward Latin America have stalled.

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*The US hasn't had an ambassador in Brazil for a year - and none in Argentina for three years. Together these nations account for almost half of Latin America's economic activity. Embassy vacancies may not make substantive policy differences, but they are interpreted as a sign of declining US interest in the region. The Senate foreign affairs committee, led by Jesse Helms, is mainly to blame, but few in Latin America grasp the distinction between purposeful US policy and congressional obstructionism.

*In December 1994, at the first Summit of the Americas in Miami, President Clinton agreed with the 33 other participating heads of state to establish a free-trade area encompassing the entire hemisphere. Formal negotiations were officially launched at the 1998 summit in Chile - but the administration's failure to gain congressional approval of fast-track negotiating authority has raised doubts about US interest, and diminished hemispheric enthusiasm for the enterprise. Mr. Clinton's continued declarations of commitment to regional free trade have lost credibility, because no one sees how he can make good on them.

*Also at the Miami Summit, Clinton pledged to bring Chile quickly into the free-trade agreement among the US, Canada, and Mexico. He promised as well to enhance trade links with Central America and the Caribbean so that they would not lose export and investment opportunities to Mexico. The US is no closer today to fulfilling either of these commitments than it was four years ago.

*In 1994, the US sent armed forces to Haiti to oust a military dictatorship and restore elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office. Haiti hasn't advanced much in establishing a minimally effective government, but small contingents of US and Canadian troops have helped keep a measure of order there. Now there's increasing pressure from the US military and Congress to pull out troops, reversing the US commitment to nurture Haitian democracy, however unpromising its short-term prospects.

*The US cannot frame a coherent policy toward Colombia, the country under most strain in the region. After welcoming President Pastrana's election last year and strongly endorsing his plans for an all-out effort to negotiate peace with Colombia's guerrilla bands, the administration's message has become muddled. Unable to decide whether guerrilla violence or illicit drugs should command most attention, the US government has declared both top priorities, even though they may require conflicting approaches. Meanwhile, some congressional leaders openly seek to undermine the peace initiative and pursue their own Colombia policy.

*Following Pope John Paul's visit to Cuba in January 1998 and the weakening of Cuban-American resistance to change, the administration gained space to reshape policy and open the way for cooperation with other hemispheric countries in seeking a transition to democratic rule.

The White House has made some constructive changes in the past year, but compared with what is needed and what is now politically possible, these have been minimal.

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To be sure, US-Latin American policy has not been all dismal. Some notable recent successes have been recorded. Despite congressional opposition, the administration acted promptly and effectively when financial crisis hit Mexico in 1995 and Brazil last year, helping to avert economic meltdowns in both countries and regionally. The US responded generously and constructively to the hurricane Mitch disaster in Central America. Yet, for most of the last four years, cordial US-Latin American relations have been sustained by the momentum of past initiatives. This will surely fade with time, unless US policy toward the region is infused with fresh energy and ideas.

Indeed, the intense opposition of most Latin American governments to the NATO action in Kosovo, recent UN votes on Cuba, and intense resistance to US initiatives at this year's meeting of the Organization of American States all suggest that an increasingly troubled relationship may already be on the horizon.

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

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