Time to Engage Central and South America, Too

Article excerpt

Most Latin Americans were pleased that President Bush made his first foreign trip to Mexico, seeing it as the necessary forerunner of the enhanced US attention to the entire region that Mr. Bush has pledged. Bush knows the United States comes out ahead economically and politically when its close neighbors progress.

But the president's trip to Mexico has to be followed by initiatives that engage South and Central America, too. Invitations to Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardoso and Colombian President Andres Pastrana to visit Washington in the coming weeks are promising signs.

In overall US-Latin relations, Mexico was the right place to start. No country in the world affects the lives of Americans as much as Mexico, and vice versa. Mexico buys more from and sells more to the US than any country except Canada. Almost as many US immigrants come from Mexico as from the rest of the world combined. US relations with Mexico are better today than at any time in memory - and there is every reason to expect them to improve further.

Most Latin American countries want from Washington what Mexico already has: a free-trade arrangement providing secure access to US markets and investment capital. They want a clear signal of the Bush administration's commitment to hemisphere-wide free trade, meaning that the White House has to move quickly to renew fast track negotiating authority, which expired in 1993.

Achieving that authority from Congress will require the White House to compromise with Democratic lawmakers on how labor and environment issues should be addressed in trade talks. Without compromise, there will likely be no fast track, which will be taken as an unambiguous sign that hemispheric relations are not a high priority for the administration. Another bad sign would be the faltering of US free-trade negotiations with Chile, initiated in the Clinton administration's waning days.

Latin Americans will also be watching President Bush's choices with regard to Colombia. While appreciating Colombia's need for help with drugs, criminals, and guerrillas, Latin American leaders are concerned that the massive US aid effort is too weighted toward military hardware, that Colombia's violence will spill into their territorities, and that US military involvement will escalate. They are also troubled that the United States did not consult with them in the shaping of its Colombia policy - a mistake that the Bush team can and should correct. …