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PERSPECTIVE ON THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE : Latins Try to Be Positive on Clinton : A free-trade Democrat might foster both economic progress and democracy in a North-South bargain.

October 23, 1992|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda, who usually writes from Mexico, is currently a visiting professor of international affairs at Princeton University.

Every four years, pundits and scholars throughout the world reflect on what the American presidential election implies for their countries or region. Those unhappy with the status quo hope for change, often identifying the challenger with their own desires and then finding disappointment in reality; those rooting for continuity accommodate the incumbent as much as possible, seeking to leverage their support into sweeter deals and greater access later. This year is no different, except for an apparent gap between Latin American elites and U.S. public opinion.

With a few important exceptions, most foreign ministries and presidential palaces in Latin America hope for George Bush's reelection. The devil they know, the policies they have tailored their own programs to, the expectation of expanded free-trade and enterprise-initiative benefits and an ideological affinity all contribute to make Bush relatively popular in the hemisphere's ruling circles. The sporadic flashes of American excess--Panama, intrusive drug enforcement--are not sufficiently heinous to alter this tilt; four more years is not such a bad deal.

Bill Clinton is largely an unknown to Latin America; worse still, he seems far more interested in domestic affairs than in foreign policy, far more subject to the buffeting currents of internal politics and difficulties than Bush has been, and far less convinced of the virtues of trickle-down economics at home or Reaganomics in the tropics. Hence the paradox: For the very reasons that have led many American voters to the verge of evicting George Bush from the White House, Latin elites would want him to stay.

Now, a major topic of conjecture in Latin capitals is the question of how a Clinton Administration might change things, and what might influence it.

It can be surmised that Clinton's devoting more attention to domestic issues and constituencies will lessen Washington's enthusiasm for maintaining a heavy hand on the economic reforms currently under way in many nations in the hemisphere. In fact, some optimists even hope for debt relief. While Clinton clearly is a free-trader and a strong believer in the free market, he can be expected to moderate some of the more extreme expressions of Republican penchants. Thus, free-trade negotiations will tend toward "kinder and gentler"--that is, have more of a social, environmental and regulatory tilt.

The second area of change could be in the promotion of democracy. Clinton has been vague about what his more "democracy-oriented" foreign policy would actually mean in Latin America, perhaps having learned from Jimmy Carter that these formulations can unleash uncontrollable dynamics. So, while a Clinton Administration would probably continue to look the other way at, say, Mexico's electoral fraud and human-rights violations, a "new covenant" emphasis on the pragmatic benefits of democracy would have a far-reaching impact on many regimes in Latin America.

At some point, a policy commitment to democracy sets processes in motion that take it beyond its original intentions. It could eventually converge with economic goals, producing a trade/democracy linkage that might be highly beneficial to the entire hemisphere as something like a grand bargain between North and South begins to take shape. For this to happen, though, Clinton would have to listen less to the Establishment-type Latin Americanists who have been advising him and more to his domestic-policy people who are more sensitive to economic and social issues.

There are a couple of specific leftover problems that Latin America would expect Clinton to resolve: the blockage of long-promised U.S. aid to Nicaragua and El Salvador, where broadly based, virtual coalition regimes are attempting to heal the wounds of more than a decade of civil war and foreign interference. The Bush Administration initially supported those efforts, but fell hostage to right-wingers in Congress, and has been unwilling or unable to put its dollars where its rhetoric used to be.

On Cuba, although Clinton the candidate has said all of the wrong things, many of those advising him acknowledge that the policy of the past 30 years is obsolete. Change is in order, and whatever Clinton's objectives in Cuba--pressing Castro to reform or to quit, negotiating a peaceful transition--engaging the Cubans on the island is a much sounder option than pandering to those in Miami.

In the last analysis, whether a new U.S. administration can be helpful on Latin America's real problems--poverty, inequality, precarious democracy and the so-far futile search for sustained and sustainable development--will depend on what it does at home. If Clinton wins but ends up being simply a softer George Bush, there is little to expect from him south of the Rio Grande. But if Clinton truly begins a process of deep domestic reform, the effects on Latin America will be immensely positive. As we learned back in the 1930s, there is no better U.S. policy toward Latin America than a domestic policy for a more just, prosperous and generous United States.

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