Latin America Awaits a Call by Clinton NAFTA Membership for Chile May Be Back in the Offing after US Election-Season Hiatus

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Leaders from Panama to Paraguay are asking a question they thought had already been answered: In the post-cold-war era, is the United States really interested in Latin America?

Since the reelection of President Clinton - and a Republican-majority Congress, Latin American leaders and US Latin specialists say signs now point to "yes" - though they warn that expectations have been dashed in the past.

Latin America thought it got a clear response to that question at the White-House-sponsored Summit of the Americas in Miami in December 1994. The US showed a leadership not focused on security, as US policy toward southern neighbors had been since World War II. Mr. Clinton called for a hemispheric free-trade zone by 2005, and promised to bring Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement by 1996. But Latin countries are once again doubting the US. The Mexican peso crashed days after the Miami agreements, and expanding trade pacts was not a big campaign crowd pleaser in the US election season. Chilean leaders grew skittish about talk of US "commitments" when their country was dropped from the US agenda - though its prospects may have improved. Canada and Chile signed a free-trade pact Nov. 18 that some say will put it on the fast track to NAFTA membership. As one Latin official puts it, "We know we can't compete with Russia or the Middle East for time on the dance floor, but we'd like to think we deserve more than the last dance." What Latin American countries are looking for, in exchange for closer cooperation with the US, is better access to the giant US market. And they are looking for evidence that it was not the Miami agreements that were the "blip" in the US pattern. They would like to think the '96 campaign hiatus was just a brief deviation from an otherwise no-U-turn road of US commitment to closer hemispheric ties. The proof will come, both US Latin specialists and Latin American leaders say, in how quickly the Clinton administration picks up the ball on Chile's entrance to NAFTA that it dropped last year, and whether Clinton finally visits the region in 1997. Europe picks up where US left off In the meantime, Latin America has not waited around for its fickle suitor. Instead, it has moved forward with various trade pacts and trade-group expansions of its own, and has begun looking increasingly to Europe and Asia for trade and investment partners. "Latin America has not been sitting on its hands waiting for the people inside the beltway {in Washington} to make up their minds," says Ambler Moss, director of the North-South Center at the University of Miami. Following Latin American tours by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and other high-level European officials this year, Europe's potential counterbalance to US influence in the region is looking more attractive to Latin countries. The European Union has reached a first-step accord with the South American Common Market (Mercosur), which includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, while Mexico expects to begin negotiating a free-trade and political cooperation pact with the EU soon. Spain, in particular, has declared its ambitions to develop its relations with Latin America and foment an EU commitment to the region. But even Spanish officials caution that Spain can never, any more than Europe as a whole, fill the potential US leadership role in the region. "The Latin Americans pin too many hopes on our role," says Inocencio Arias, spokesman for the Spanish Foreign Ministry, in Santiago for last week's annual Ibero-American Summit. "Of course they look to us more at a time when the US seems to be paying less attention to the region, but the reality is that Spain is a middle power that can only do so much. …