Hang-up on Latin trade Washington divided: Clinton should confront Democratic protectionists.

March 02, 1997

WHILE THE United States diddles, Asian and European nations are building their trade relations with Latin American countries that should be our natural partners in a hemisphere-wide free trade area.

Chile, the nation with the fastest growing Latin economy, is a case in point. Although in 1994 it was promised membership in NAFTA, the trade pact that binds the U.S. with Canada and Mexico, politics along the Potomac has proven to be a formidable roadblock.

As a result, Chile has gone ahead and signed NAFTA-style bilateral agreements with Mexico and Canada, has joined the Asia Pacific Economic Council and affiliated with Mercosur, a regional alignment including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The hang-up in negotiations with Chile, which remained stalled despite President Eduardo Frei's visit to Washington this past week, is strictly an internal U.S. matter. Washington is split three ways: most Republicans adhering to purist free trade principles, some Democrats embracing the shrill protectionism of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and the Clinton administration immobilized in the middle -- ideologically pro-trade but anxious to placate fellow Democrats with labor and environment provisions that Republicans reject.

Organized labor would be content to extend the stall indefinitely. Republican leaders are anxious to maintain free trade as one sector in which they can cooperate with the administration. Before he travels this spring to Latin America, President Clinton would like to have in his pocket "fast-track" authority to craft trade pacts that Congress has to vote up or down, without amendment.

To break the logjam, Mr. Clinton will have to be willing to confront Mr. Gephardt, who is not at all averse to going head to head on this issue with Vice President Al Gore, his putative rival for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. The time for the president to spend political capital is now.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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