Lead or Move Over

Thursday, October 30, 1997

President Clinton's May 1997 trip to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean led some around the hemisphere to hope that Washington was rediscovering the Americas.

An editorial in Chile's El Mercurio newspaper expressed the common Latin American perception that, before the trip, Clinton's general interest in the region had been "practically zero." While Clinton was on the road, many considered the possibility that things might be changing, but his subsequent decision not to press immediately for Chile's entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has restored previous skepticism.

During his first term, Clinton's attention to Latin America was inherited from George Bush (NAFTA), crisis inspired (the Mexican peso bailout), misguided (Haiti), or confrontational (Cuba).

Then came a period when interest in and common sense toward the region seemed to increase exponentially. Latin America is, after all, the United States' third-largest trading partner, fastest-growing export market, and the primary source of immigrants and drugs. The most important development in this time was Clinton's trip, his first to the region as president. National Security adviser Sandy Berger said it was mainly to shore up relationships, not to launch specific programs. In Mexico, for example, Clinton sought to heal wounds inflicted by immigration bashing and "certification" that Mexico was doing its part in the drug war.

Shortly thereafter, trade ministers from thirty-four American nations met in Brazil to discuss a free trade area of the Americas, which the 1994 Miami summit of the Americas said would come in 2005. But prescient Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso warned that, until Clinton has "fast-track" authority from Congress to speed up regional integration, the free trade area is only a dream.

What are the main issues for the United States in the region today?

Trade. The United States should take the lead in integrating the hemisphere to strengthen the economies there and U.S. market access to them. But Washington has largely abdicated the initiative to Brazil and Argentina. Not too long ago, House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to raise the U.S. profile by supporting fast-track for Clinton, but the president postponed until fall even seeking this authority.

Drugs. The conduct of the drug war provides more conflict than cooperation in the region, and its failures weaken often fragile Latin American political, economic, and judicial institutions. Gingrich recently proclaimed the United States' need to "rethink the entire [certification] process," and drug czar Barry McCaffrey admitted that the process is badly flawed. Congress should trash that legislation, then, with the president and the American people, soberly compare the few successes and terrible costs of the current "war"--with its astronomical incentives to violence and corruption, as seen most recently in Mexico--to the admittedly imperfect alternative of decriminalization and then act accordingly.

Immigration. The United States must control its borders, but it must not blame immigrants for problems they do not cause or worsen. The sudden deportation of large numbers of people under recent legislation would aggravate already serious regional unemployment, deprive countries of critical remittances from families in the United States, and precipitate unrest.

The positive impact of the president's trip has already waned. The key to real improvement is follow-through by the president, backed by Congress, with popular support. That hope seems again to have blipped off the screen.

More than ever, most Latin Americans are eager to deal with the United States in domestic development and international relations. But the United States must be seriously interested and evenhanded. Now Latin Americans who place recent events in the context of Clinton's earlier lack of focused interest--and congressional politicking and foot-dragging--must simply say, "Show us or stay our of our way."