Flying down to Brasilia Clinton trip: Latin trade bus is leaving the station, with or without U.S.

October 14, 1997

SOUTH AMERICA has changed since the last U.S. president, George Bush, visited in 1990. It is more democratic, more prosperous, more modern and has freer markets. President Clinton may have tried to emulate the hollow rhetorical flourishes that have characterized the relationship. But his mission differs from previous presidential descents on the continent.

The president is not pushing small Latin republics around. He may have embraced Venezuela's President Rafael Caldera yesterday, but what he wants is more oil from that country, and less cocaine.

He may offer help in bringing the Internet to the schools when he meets President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brasilia today, but Brazil leads the booming free trade area called Mercosur and what it wants from the United States is support for a permanent Brazilian seat on the United Nations Security Council, which it will not get.

He may link young leaders in Buenos Aires in telecom discussion with counterparts in the Hispanic cultural capitals, Miami and Los Angeles, but what Argentina wants and will not receive is extension of the embargo on selling U.S. warplanes to Chile. What it will get is designation as an ally, for sending a frigate to support U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.

When Mr. Clinton touts free trade to South American counterparts, he is preaching to a newly converted choir. Mr. Clinton's target audience is back on Capitol Hill. Congress is reluctant to extend the ''fast track'' trade negotiating authority that Mr. Clinton and Presidents Reagan and Nixon enjoyed. Republicans believe in it but not in him. And too many Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, hope to block Chile's entrance into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by ending the authority.

Chile has earned trade and investment and is getting it with this country's NAFTA partners, as well as with the Pacific Rim. For Congress to penalize U.S. firms in Chile's market would harm the U.S. national interest.

Fast track -- which allows Congress to reject but not amend a complicated trade deal -- is vital for the complex matters coming from the World Trade Organization. President Clinton should not have to grandstand in South America to get it. But this is a good time for the ritual. It is springtime in South America, and Congress ought to let the United States share the fruits.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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