New Opportunities for US Policy in Latin America

Article excerpt

HAITI and a few other trouble spots notwithstanding, the major challenge facing President Clinton in Latin America is not resolving old conflicts. It is managing new opportunities for cooperation between the United States and the nations of the region.

During the Bush years, most outstanding clashes between the US and Latin America were muted or resolved. Central America's wars came to an end. The debt crisis receded.

Tensions over drug-trafficking eased. More important, the Bush administration opened the way for a new US economic partnership with Latin America. Free-trade negotiations were initiated with Mexico, and the development of hemisphere-wide free trade was proposed.

On the political front, the US and Latin American countries joined forces in the Organization of American States (OAS) to protect and promote democracy.

To be sure, the Bush administration's accomplishments were mixed with disappointments: delays in concluding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada; lack of progress in developing regional trade arrangements beyond Mexico or implementing other elements of the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative; freezing of US-Cuba relations in cold-war hostility; increasing disengagement from Central America; and failure of OAS initiatives to restore democratic practice in Haiti and Peru.

Yet, US relations with Latin America are on a sounder footing than at any time in recent memory.

In Latin America, NAFTA is viewed as the crucial test of the Clinton administration's interest in forging constructive ties with the region. Rejection of the accord would be devastating to Mexico, which has the most important relationship with the US among nations in the hemisphere. It would also foreclose prospects of a broader, hemisphere-wide free trade system. Mr. Clinton will have to invest considerable energy and political capital to remedy NAFTA's weaknesses on environmental and labor issues, and then gain congressional ratification. He will also have to work hard to build support for extending the NAFTA arrangements throughout Latin America.

In recent years, the OAS has taken on increased responsibility for organizing inter-American actions to safeguard democratic rule. Clinton and his advisers will have to decide whether they want to fortify the OAS role or reserve greater capacity for independent US initiative. …