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Vigor in the Hemisphere

December 03, 1987

The summit of eight major Latin American leaders in Mexico last weekend, like the summitof the five Central American presidents in Guatemala in August, was characterized by a new and welcome independence and vigor in dealing with problems of the hemisphere.

If nothing else, these 13 leaders have set their own agendas, ignoring traditional positions and programs exported from Washington. To that extent, both summits measure the substantial resistance that has been generated by President Reagan's muddled response to Latin economic problems and his insistence on interpreting all security matters in the Cold War context.

Perhaps the eight drew courage and comfort from the experience of the five. The White House had tried just about everything to sabotage the peace plan constructed for and by the five Central American nations. Reagan appeared to assume that these small nations were not wise enough to see the ostensible menace to hemispheric security represented by the Sandinista regime in Managua.

Now Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela have themselves ignored some tired tenets of U.S. policy, calling for a reinvigoration of the Organization of American States and a return of Cuba to full participation in the structures of the hemisphere. At the same time, they have avoided irresponsible and cheap solutions to the terrible foreign-debt problem that weighs all of them down, but they have rightly called for debt-settlement formulas tailored to the ability of each debtor to pay.

The two summit meetings were linked in the final declaration of the eight chiefs of state gathered last weekend at Acapulco. The eight established an emergency program to help the five Central American nations strengthen their economies as they implement their peace plan.

Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the founding of the OAS. That could be a propitious occasion for restructuring the organization, recognizing both the importance of universality--there is more to gain by including rather than excluding Cuba--and the importance of equality--little is served if the OAS is only a rubber stamp of Washington.

There are new signs, in the resumed Cuban emigration and immigration agreement that touched off the Cuban prisoner riots, that Washington and Havana are talking again. So they should be. Cuba's importance is only inflated by U.S. efforts to isolate it. The establishment of diplomatic relations does not necessarily carry with it a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. If President Reagan can risk summitry with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, he can safely talk with Fidel Castro. The Latin Americans themselves have recognized that as they have reestablished ties with Cuba.

Latin leaders, despite the extraordinary problems they face, are speaking up constructively. The U.S. leader needs to learn to listen attentively.

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