Will Clinton Mambo in Miami?

Article excerpt

FOR THREE DAYS IN APRIL 1967 LYNDON Johnson loomed over the leaders of the Western Hemisphere gathered at the chic seaside resort of Punta del Este, Uruguay. He emphasized that Washington wanted a new relationship with its neighbors, one based more on economic cooperation and less on Teddy Roosevelt's "big stick" diplomacy--conveniently ignoring his own recent dispatch of U.S. troops to prop up a junta besieged by leftists. The summit ended with a call for a Latin-wide common market.

This Friday, Bill Clinton will preside over a three-day assembly of 34 leaders of the Americas in Miami. Clinton will forswear U.S. interest in playing cop in the region, even as U.S. troops occupy Haiti to prop up its president. And he will back the call for a hemispheric free-trade zone stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

But quite a lot has changed in 27 years. This time, U.S. troops are on a mission to restore an elected president in Haiti--not to prop up a junta. The closed, state-run, slow-growth economies that were the rule in Latin America throughout most of the 1980s are gone, as are the dictators and military strongmen who ran them. In their place are democratically elected free marketers who oversee robust economies that drew $67 billion in foreign investment last year. Over the past decade their governments have renegotiated massive debts, sold off state enterprises, trimmed payrolls, whacked subsidies and stifled inflation. They adopted tariff-capping trade pacts--the giant Mercosur linking Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay comes into formal existence on Jan. 1. These new leaders believe they are ready to do business with Washington on a more equal footing. If Clinton traveled to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Indonesia to press for a date to inaugurate Asian free trade, they reason, surely he'll have something of substance to offer in Miami.

Or maybe not. Clinton's proposal will be somewhat more than what the White House outlined in a draft agenda issued last summer but somewhat less than what Latin leaders want. According to a draft copy obtained by Newsweek, the final communique will endorse an expanded NAFA, an Americas Free Trade Area (to be known as AFRA). Chile, with the region's most vibrant economy, would be the first candidate for entry into the larger group, which now comprises the United States, Canada and Mexico; others would follow. The draft has no schedule for these events, but endorses a conference of trade ministers by February 1996 to chart the process for dropping the "N" from NAFTCA.

That endorsement, coming right after the APEC meeting, can be seen as a signal that Washington takes Latin America as seriously as it does Asia. …