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Americas Have Changed a Lot Since '67 Summit : Diplomacy: Dream of free trade is more realistic for upcoming meeting of leaders of the Western Hemisphere.

December 04, 1994|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay — When presidents and prime ministers of the Western Hemisphere meet in Miami beginning Friday, tying up traffic and provoking a media feeding frenzy, the commotion will be reminiscent of 1967 in Punta del Este, where the last full-scale hemispheric summit was held.

But the three-day meeting in Miami, with President Clinton as host, won't be quite like the one in Punta del Este. For one thing, Clinton is no Lyndon B. Johnson.

In Punta del Este, a luxury beach resort on the South Atlantic, President Johnson was the lone star of a Texas-scale extravaganza that only an LBJ could rustle up. He brought planeloads of equipment and supplies, even his own bed. He charmed and amused his colleagues with his folksy ways, handing out watches with his logo and bronze busts of himself as gifts.

Heriberto Chavez, a taxi driver, remembers that the big Texan moved around little Punta del Este in a convoy of oversized American cars, all Chryslers.

"I remember that, whenever he arrived, his bodyguards got out running," said Chavez, 66. "There were three cars, the President's and two for the bodyguards."

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Chavez was driving his taxi on a street that curves around million-dollar summer houses, which he called chalets. He stopped at a three-story white mansion with varnished wood shutters, barely visible through grassy hillocks and thick hedges.

"This is the chalet. This was Johnson's," Chavez said. "There were helicopters here. I don't know if there were two or three."

The house has a little sign with a French name, "Beaulieu," but the owner in 1967 was said to be of German origin. The White House rented the place for a large sum, and Johnson had some of its rooms repainted yellow. Then, gossip got around that Johnson's landlord had Nazi connections in his background. "That proved a little embarrassing for us," said James Cheek, a protocol officer at the 1967 summit and now U.S. ambassador to Argentina.

In those days, Punta del Este was quieter, smaller, with few of the high-rise apartment buildings that today give it a big-time skyline, a la Miami Beach. "Communications were primitive," Cheek said in his Buenos Aires office. "We had to go over and wire the town."

Latin America and the Caribbean have also changed since 1967. The region's population is nearly twice as big, about 470 million. Its imports have burgeoned from $10 billion to $150 billion a year, and it is communicating through satellites, computers and fiber optics.

Another difference between then and now is that many Latin American leaders at Punta del Este were dictators, including Gen. Juan Carlos Ongania of Argentina, Gen. Artur da Costa e Silva of Brazil and Gen. Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay. In Miami, the leaders will all be elected civilians--including Eduardo Frei Jr. of Chile, whose father participated in the Punta del Este summit.

In 1967, the Cold War was raging, Cuban leader Fidel Castro was sponsoring Communist guerrilla movements in Latin America, and the United States was increasingly enmeshed in Southeast Asia. "It was a different world, a different summit," Cheek said.

But there will be notable similarities. Castro was excluded from the 1967 summit, for example, and Clinton has again left him off the invitation list for Miami.

And an important item on the 1967 agenda, economic integration, will again be the centerpiece of discussion in Miami. As they did then in Punta del Este, Latin American leaders will again speak enthusiastically about common market plans while urging the United States to open its doors wider to their exports.

In 1967, LBJ may not have listened to their every word, but he wanted texts of everything that was said. Cheek was on the staff that tried to get the texts. But many presidents spoke extemporaneously, so American typists had to rapidly transcribe tapes. It wasn't easy.

"Johnson demanded instant documents with the speeches of these people," Cheek said. "Some of these Latin presidents rambled on and on. And of course Johnson didn't take no for an answer."

According to Cheek, LBJ got along well with the presidents at Punta del Este, with the exception of Ecuador's Otto Arosemena. In his summit speech, Arosemena "started beating up on the United States," criticizing Washington for "shortchanging" Latin America on aid, Cheek said.

"Johnson just sat there with a scowl on his face," then left his seat, Cheek recalled. "He walks over and starts chatting with Frei in the middle of Arosemena's speech . . . a really insulting thing to do, but that was Johnson's style."

His style also included jovial backslapping, flattery and personalized gifts. Cheek said his gifts to most of the presidents at Punta del Este were Bulova Accutron watches with the LBJ logo on them. To lesser officials, he gave out the statuettes of himself.

"I think the foreign ministers got busts of LBJ," Cheek said.

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