U.S. Is Looking South: President's Trip Points to Area's Influence

By Strobel, Warren P.; Carter, Tom | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

U.S. Is Looking South: President's Trip Points to Area's Influence


Strobel, Warren P., Carter, Tom, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


As he opened a briefing for reporters Tuesday, National Security Adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger turned the tables and asked three rapid-fire questions of his own:

Which country is the United States' largest source of oil? Which has reduced its inflation rate from 1,600 percent to 5 percent in seven years? Which has committed peacekeeping troops to more than a dozen conflicts, from Cambodia to the Western Sahara?

The answers: Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina.

The object of Mr. Berger's "cheap exercise," as he termed it, is the same as President Clinton's in visiting those three South American countries: to try to direct Americans' attention to a continent that is increasingly important but often overlooked.

Mr. Clinton's visit is unlikely to produce any earth-shattering agreements, and has been criticized by some policy analysts here and in the region as little more than an extended "photo op."

But at each stop, he will have to handle some specific issues.

In Venezuela, a transit point for Colombian cocaine, he will sign a "ship rider" accord, allowing U.S. drug enforcement agents to pursue suspects in Venezuela's territorial waters.

In Brazil, Mr. Clinton and President Fernando Henrique Cardoso will begin a formal cooperative effort on education and technology. Brazil is being invited to join in the U.S. initiative for a next-generation Internet, but is debating whether it can afford the $10 million-a-year price tag for participation.

In Argentina, the focus will be on security. Mr. Clinton is planning to designate Argentina a "non-NATO military ally," a distinction given only to a handful of nations such as Israel and South Korea. The designation, which has upset neighboring Chile, is in recognition of the 16 peacekeeping missions that Argentine forces have joined in recent years, Mr. Berger said.

The irony for the president is that, even as he departs for Caracas today on his first trip to South America since taking office, his drive for U.S. leadership in shaping the hemisphere's future appears to be flagging.

Mr. Clinton leaves without the bipartisan congressional votes his advisers had dearly hoped for to give him "fast track" trade negotiating authority, a precondition for his vision of a hemisphere-wide free-trade area.

Following passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Mr. Clinton's hosting of the Miami Summit of the Americas in 1994, "the U.S. had a lot of momentum. . . . We were in the lead. We were driving the agenda," said Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration. But with Mexico's peso crisis and a surge of protectionist sentiment at home, "a lot of the momentum went out," he said.

"To not even have the [trade-negotiating] authority and to have it in question is obviously kind of a cloud hanging over" the mission, Mr. Aronson noted.

"Fast track" authority allows a president to negotiate trade accords knowing that Congress can only vote them up or down, not amend them.

"This trip was planned with the idea that President Clinton would have fast track in hand and he would go to Latin America to advance that agenda. Latins are wondering if he can deal with the main issue, which is trade liberalization," said former State Department official Phil Peters, a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute.

"Without fast track, he is going with an empty briefcase," Mr. Peters said.

Administration officials acknowledge that if the authority eludes Mr. Clinton - he now hopes to have it in hand in time for a hemispheric summit in Santiago, Chile, in April - the United States will find it harder to influence trends in one of the fastest-growing markets for U.S. products.

"This is part of the dynamic that's at work here - the concern that we're going to be able to lead in the hemisphere," said Jay Berman, White House point man on the issue. …

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