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Americas Summit Puts Focus on Joint Efforts

Diplomacy: U.S., 33 other nations set September deadline to begin talks on vast free trade zone. On many issues, Washington offers itself as an example and partner to region's junior democracies.

April 20, 1998|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA and JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTIAGO, Chile — The 34-nation Summit of the Americas that ended here Sunday offered far more than a chat-fest on such regional dilemmas as drugs and poverty: It provided a glimpse of a future in which the United States and its neighbors struggle more collectively than ever before to tackle their problems.

The Western Hemisphere's leaders agreed Sunday to move forward on plans to create a vast free trade zone throughout the Americas, to formally outlaw corruption and to cooperate on efforts to nurture Internet and other electronic commerce in the hemisphere. The leaders set a September deadline to begin talks in Miami aimed at establishing a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005.

Moreover, in areas from schools to health care to political freedom, the United States offered itself as an example and partner to the region's junior democracies rather than as the feared and resented enforcer of the past.

President Clinton's failure to come to Chile with broader trade-negotiating authority from Congress was interpreted by some as a sign of diminishing U.S. influence. On Sunday, El Mercurio, Chile's leading newspaper, ran this headline: "The Timidity of the Giant: Clinton Came to Regain His Leadership." But such sentiments only underscored the rising strength and confidence of Brazil, Chile and other nations that reacted approvingly to a U.S. approach they saw as more cooperative and less ostentatious than in the past.

"One of the things that had weakened and hurt the relationship of the United States and Latin America was the fact of a very powerful United States dealing with weak nations," said Genaro Arriagada, a key summit organizer for Chilean President Eduardo Frei, in an interview Sunday. "So a leadership that is more friendly, which is the type Clinton has adopted--but less powerful--is a great opportunity for a better inter-American relationship."

Other views of the future expressed at the gathering were downright warm and fuzzy, such as the multilingual valentine to a changing hemisphere offered up by Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada during closing remarks: "It is clear that we are becoming more than amigos [friends]. We are becoming una gran familia [a big family]."

No one is declaring an end to power politics, nor is anyone characterizing Honduras or Barbados as the head of the hemispheric family. But Clinton, rather than seeming worried about supposedly weakened leadership, appeared to be remaking the U.S. approach to keep in step with a region that, having established democracy and begun economic growth with remarkable speed, has entered a new phase dominated by demands for social justice and solid institutions in democracies that are still works in progress.

And White House officials, sensitive to any perception that their nation has slipped in stature, were quick to point out that the United States accounts for $7 trillion of the hemisphere's annual $9-trillion economy.

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As the leaders reiterated Sunday during an open-format discussion, a foremost menace to their interdependent societies is drug cartels with massive firepower and unlimited resources.

"We are not losing the war on drugs, but we are not winning it either," Colombian President Ernesto Samper told his colleagues, in an assessment viewed by some observers as optimistic at best.

The drug issue exemplifies the still-evolving new partnership between the United States and its southern neighbors. Leaders this weekend announced a new "alliance against drugs" and approved a proposal for the Organization of American States, or OAS, to conduct an annual evaluation of the anti-drug efforts of all nations in the hemisphere.

The subtext of this accord was an effort by U.S. and Latin officials to mollify the anger provoked by yearly U.S. "certification" of the anti-drug performance of nations such as Colombia, which has been deemed uncooperative two years in a row because of corruption alleged to reach as high as Samper.

Latin American nations call the U.S. attitude demeaning and hypocritical because it fails to account for the fundamental role of demand from U.S. drug users. Some nations see the new OAS mechanism as a big step toward scuttling certification by the White House.

But Thomas "Mack" McLarty, Clinton's special envoy to the Americas, and others made it clear Sunday that, despite the new OAS role, the U.S. certification process will continue because it is mandated by federal law.

More than any other issue in Latin America, the drug problem gets the attention of the U.S. public and subjects the White House to political cross-fire. Republican members of Congress criticized the announced anti-drug alliance as a capitulation by Clinton to a "blame America crowd."

"The heart of many of these one-sided, ill-informed arguments is that the drug crisis is fueled by an insatiable 'demand' in the U.S.," said Reps. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York and J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois in a written statement. "Simply put, supply can and does sustain demand."

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