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Christopher Travels South in a Tense Time of Change : Bolstering Latin ties in a tour tinged by campaign politics

February 25, 1996

Secretary of State Warren Christopher today begins a long-overdue trip that will take him to five countries in Latin America.

George Shultz was the last U.S. secretary to travel to Latin America. In 1988 his mission was to wrap up President Reagan's Latin American policy--a policy that put this nation on a collision course with the eight Latin countries that formed Contadora, an alliance to promote peace in Central America.

The times have indeed changed. The civil wars that troubled the region are gone and confrontation no longer defines the relationship between the United States and Latin America. Instead, there seems to be a willingness to increase international cooperation as the best way to manage a complex relationship.

The centerpiece of the Clinton administration's policy was set more than a year ago at the Miami summit attended by all elected heads of state of the Americas (Fidel Castro of Cuba was not invited). At the summit, the continental leaders formulated a comprehensive plan that included 23 stated goals, derived from a set of issues that form the core of Christopher's agenda for this trip.

Economic reform, democracy, regional security, the environment and drug trade are the main issues of the new agenda. Unfortunately, there has been little progress worth noting since the Miami summit, and that is a shame--especially considering that there was an opportunity to make Chile the first southern partner in a continental free trade agreement. Now, in a U.S. election year, such a politically controversial move for the Clinton administration is unfeasible.

But election year politics also make it of utmost importance that Christopher use his Latin American trip to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to free trade and continued economic reform in the hemisphere. Given the extreme protectionist language being heard currently on the campaign trail, it may perhaps do some good to reassure this nation's Latin partners that it is the prerogative of the president to set U.S. foreign policy.

All the nations that Christopher will visit--El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago--have embarked upon very difficult and painful economic reforms, with the aim of improving their productivity and becoming more competitive globally. To achieve these goals they have had to implement severe programs of privatization, eradicate inefficient enterprises, fight inflation and protect their currencies through tight monetary policies. As a result, large numbers of people have joined the ranks of the unemployed in a region that already had harsh indexes of economic inequality.

The bottom-line result is a politically and socially tense environment throughout the region. And that makes it imperative for the U.S. to enhance the scope of cooperation with its neighbors to the south.

Democracy is fast becoming the system of choice in the region, but it needs to be strengthened and improved. Protection of human rights is imperfect in many areas, and there are countries where due process is not observed and where those convicted cannot file appeals. That is an area where Latin nations can avail themselves of U.S. assistance.

Even though the end of the Cold War made regional security a more manageable issue, there is now a much more dangerous threat to our regional security in the explosive growth of drug trafficking throughout the Americas. Once again, given the continental dimensions of the problem, the only way to combat it effectively is through international cooperation. Christopher should clarify to our neighbors that those who call for unilateral punishment against countries that produce or distribute drugs are missing the point just as much as those who put all the blame on the consumer country.

Latin America has some basic infrastructure needs: electricity, transportation, telecommunications, water and sanitation. Helping these nations develop or maintain these basic systems could be good business for American investors. Perhaps Christopher can pave the way for partnerships between the U.S. and Latin America that would make the trip that much more worthwhile.

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