Latin America Sambas at Christopher's Visit US Secretary in Five-Nation Tour Talks about Trade, Drugs

Article excerpt

CHILE has heard all the arguments about the Clinton administration dropping the ball on US relations with Latin America.

But when Warren Christopher stopped by Santiago yesterday as part of a five-country swing through El Salvador, Chile, Argentina (where he is today), Brazil, and Trinidad, he was the first US secretary of state to do so in three decades.

So even though President Clinton fumbled his commitment to getting Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by the end of 1995, Chile did not complain too loudly.

"That's the paradox of {US-Chilean} relations right now," says a Chilean official. "We have a high-level exchange with the US in many important areas, but at the same time we find Chile's entry into NAFTA frozen by US politics."

The official might have been speaking for Latin America in general. The region remains off the front burners of American foreign policy and increasingly finds itself the object of partisan attacks in the US. But at the same time, the kinds of contacts the US has institutionalized with its southern neighbors shows a deepening relationship.

Some political analysts criticize the Clinton administration for ignoring its southern backyard or reducing it to a bifocal vision of drugs and immigration. Others insist the US, in the three years since Clinton took office, has made important strides in elevating issues of trade and democracy to a level once occupied by security concerns.

"For those of us who worried that things under Clinton would be completely domestically focused and that the progress in inter-American relations under President Bush would be lost, this administration has been a surprise," says Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin America expert at Florida International University in Miami.

Off to good start

Mr. Clinton started out right by appointing respected academics and diplomats to key Latin posts, says Mr. Gamarra. The high point in US-Latin relations came in early December 1994 when Clinton hosted the Summit of the Americas in Miami, which set a timetable for creating a free-trade zone of the Americas by 2005.

But Mexico's peso crisis in December 1994 set back Latin America's cause. Next, growing US concerns about the effect on jobs of free-trade pacts threw off the schedule for Chile's entry into NAFTA.

But perhaps most important, "Clinton had to spend his time on problematic issues" like Bosnia, Russia, the Middle East, and China, says Gamarra, "and Latin America was not problematic. …