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Christopher Upbeat on Latin America Trip

Diplomacy: Visit reflects foreign policy successes. Region has made strides in political, economic reforms.

February 29, 1996|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTIAGO, Chile — Warren Christopher launched a Latin American tour Wednesday--and it may rank as one of the more unusual trips anywhere by an American secretary of state.

In stark contrast to recent somber visits to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Middle East, the United States' top diplomat gave free legal advice to young lawyers working in legal aid clinics at a stop in Chile on Wednesday. Today in Argentina, he is to visit the new Buenos Aires Wal-Mart. And in Brazil over the weekend, he will take a boat ride through the rain forest.

More than any other trip, Christopher's 48th journey abroad reflects the extraordinary shift in U.S. foreign policy in this region in the mid-1990s.

Washington is not yet free from trying to mop up the Cold War's messes or defuse its hot spots here. But in Latin America, the United States may finally be able to act on its foreign agenda for the 21st century: deepening young democratic roots, promoting trade and private investment and encouraging environmentally friendly development.

"The demise of communism in Eastern Europe gets the most attention, when, in fact, the most concrete successes are in Latin America," said a senior official traveling with Christopher.

Santiago was his first stop because it epitomizes that success, U.S. officials say.

Political reforms in Chile, one of the world's most notorious dictatorships until 1990, have gone further than anywhere in the hemisphere.

Economic reforms have led to annual growth of more than 6% over the past six years. In 1995, economic growth here reached 8.4%, the Central Bank reported this week.

Chile now has a budget surplus and invests almost 70% of its money in social programs.

Over the past six years, those programs have brought more than 1 million of Chile's 14 million people out of poverty, U.S. officials say.

As a result, Chile now is--as Christopher noted often--a full partner of the United States. It has officially broken out of Third World status. For example, a long-standing U.S. Agency for International Development program is scheduled to close this year.

Chilean President Eduardo Frei's government now wants U.S. private investment, not handouts, and technical expertise, not arms.

So as Christopher's talk with the young lawyers underscored, the United States is now helping Chile's Justice Ministry revise the way it prosecutes criminals--by creating a public prosecutor's office, strengthening the public defender system and modernizing legal services for the poor.

Among the advice he gave them, drawing on his experience as head of the Christopher Commission's review of the Los Angeles Police Department, was to watch for a force "corrupted by the overuse of violence."

Meanwhile, Argentina--where U.S. AID offices closed in June--is enjoying successes similar to those in Chile.

U.S. experts there are helping programs such as Citizen Power, a nongovernment group that fights corruption and tries to educate people on getting involved in society and government. With the help of a Yale law professor, Citizen Power has grown so successful that it has associate chapters in Venezuela and Central America.

When Christopher told Chileans on arrival that "never before have our relations with Latin America been stronger," he was not referring just to diplomatic ties. The United States is Chile's largest trading partner and its biggest source of foreign investment. In eight years, U.S. exports to Chile have almost tripled; almost a quarter of all Chilean imports are American.

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