CARACAS, Venezuela — Launching his first visit to South America as the United States prepared to observe Columbus Day, President Clinton on Sunday urged modern-day explorers of democracy and prosperity on both continents to "bring the Americas together."
"When the first explorers came to the Americas centuries ago, there was no distinction in their minds between North and South America--it was simply the new world," he said upon arriving to a red-carpet welcome in Caracas.
"As we stand on the edge of a new century in a new millennium, we are very much like the first explorers who came here centuries ago--we can see a new world in the making. That is our chance and our responsibility. Let us seize it together."
Over the coming week, Clinton plans a hectic itinerary featuring meetings with national leaders, public speeches, sessions with business executives and other events. He will go to a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro and is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting for the hemisphere in Buenos Aires that will include participants in Los Angeles and Miami. Growing cooperation in trade, education and fighting narcotics all are themes he intends to spotlight.
As dragonflies drifted in the steamy air, the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged from Marine One at La Carlota Air Base on Sunday to a 21-gun salute and a warm welcome from Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera and his wife, Alicia Pietre de Caldera.
"We know that we are linked with you with a solid friendship," Caldera said, foreshadowing Clinton's theme of unity. "We know we both have a commitment in the fight for liberty, a commitment for democracy which must be reinforced in all nations of the globe."
If past presidential trips to South America have sparked spasms of anger against the United States along with an embarrassing catalog of gaffes--Ronald Reagan toasted "the people of Bolivia" when he was in Brazil, for example--White House officials are optimistic that this visit will be a different story altogether.
"This trip is an opportunity to highlight South America's quiet and impressive revolution," said Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, the White House national security advisor, alluding to the democracies that have replaced brutal military regimes throughout the region and now nurture market economies.
The trip also provides a rare chance, in the view of some foreign policy specialists, for the president to set forth his vision of future relations between the United States and countries that long saw the U.S. as an arrogant, imperial power with aggressive designs on its southern "backyard." North and South Americans share long-term concerns about the hemisphere's economy, security issues and environment, analysts say.
"This is the opportunity for him to do precisely what his critics say he hasn't done," said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on Western Hemisphere relations. "Whether he'll do it or not--that's another question."
Throughout the region, political corruption, problems with police and shaky financial systems all raise questions about the sort of future that is in store for the continent. When then-President Bush visited South America in 1990, the political and economic reforms were in their infancy; seven years later, they appear more stable but far from mature.
"I think in every stop, the president will talk about helping to solidify democracy, helping to build civil society, helping to establish civil rights and civil liberties and human rights," said the White House's Berger, who described the South American democracies as "imperfect" and "works in progress."
The Clinton administration has gotten stuck in at least one awkward situation by announcing it will designate Argentina as a major non-NATO ally, a reward for its cooperation with international ventures in the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere. The title offers little more than a bit of prestige but has already fueled regional jealousies and prompted complaints from Chile.
"If there's any policy decision that people regret having made, frankly I think it was that one," Hakim said.
There also are some basic matters of business clouding the horizon--including a few trade disputes that Clinton is unlikely to spotlight. The U.S. and Venezuela are at odds over airline service between them. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) complained Friday about Argentina's inadequate protection of U.S. intellectual property rights. Yet even as trade issues simmer, economic ties are multiplying. One example: Venezuela last year surpassed Saudi Arabia as the chief supplier of crude oil to the U.S.
"In the 1960s, American investment was frequently regarded as imperialist exploitation," recalled Lincoln Gordon, a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil and assistant secretary of state who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Now everybody's clamoring for it."
There is a growing awareness throughout the region, Gordon added, that "economically, socially and politically, they're part of a wider world, which the U.S. is the biggest element in."
Sound cozy? The relationship still has many stresses, and South Americans retain sensitivities about how their powerful neighbor views them. Just last week, feelings were ruffled in Brazil when the local media reported that the draft of a U.S. Commerce Department paper cited "endemic" corruption there. An outcry prompted the U.S. ambassador to apologize.
Alluding to the deeply ingrained feelings the incident underscored, Gordon said of Clinton's trip: "If he can overcome that, I think that will be a real contribution to better relations for the future."