A nod to the Americas

January 16, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH wanted to talk about free trade. His counterparts at the Summit of the Americas pointedly did not; they focused on the plight of the poor in their home countries. At the end of the two-day summit this week in Mexico, neither agenda prevailed and the conference ended with the Latin Americans grudgingly resigned to pushing ahead on talks for a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone. Mr. Bush didn't change anyone's mind with his pitch that free trade was "the most certain path to lasting prosperity," but as far as these summits go, the president gained more than he lost.

For starters, Mr. Bush dispensed with the cold shoulder given Mexico and Canada for their opposition to the Iraq war (it's about time) and offered an immigration proposal and war construction contracts, respectively, to renew two important friendships.

On trade issues, the United States held its ground on having negotiations on a Free Trade Area of the Americas concluded by 2005, though, regrettably, no specific deadline was set. Negotiations should proceed in a timely manner with everyone, the United States included, looking for compromises that can bring about an agreement. A free-trade pact would improve Latin America's economic climate and, in turn, shore up young democracies where impoverished citizens are clamoring - rioting, in some instances - for a better standard of living. With its Central American free-trade pact signed last month, the United States has advanced the prospect of increasing economic opportunities for some of the region's poor.

But free trade is by no means a panacea, as the 10-year experience with the North American Free Trade Agreement has shown. The United States shouldn't ignore concerns of Latin American leaders who view the state of their people as pressing: Many of their citizens live on less than $2 a day, suffer from hunger or malnutrition and confront corruption in their daily lives. At the same time, Latin American leaders need to be aggressive in reforming civic institutions, improving education and combating corruption.

But competing political interests in the region can sabotage the best efforts. In Colombia, the military's power has frustrated anti-corruption efforts. And, in Mexico, an obstinate, opposition-led Congress has stymied President Vicente Fox's economic reforms.

The arguments for and against free trade expressed at the Monterrey conference were little different from those put forth at the first summit in 1994. But the speeches then offered promise of a new direction in U.S.-Latin American relations. Resignation has since replaced hope - and that can't continue. The need for a free-trade agreement for the Americas is even more pressing now, as investment and jobs head to East Asia and China. Neither side should tarry.

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