Time for a jump-start


WASHINGTON -- President Bush leaves the turmoil of the nation's capital behind today with a trip to Latin America, a region of huge promise in the first days of his administration that today offers its own policy perils but also a chance to reshape his international reputation.

Traveling to Argentina for the fourth Summit of the Americas, with stops in Panama and Brazil, Mr. Bush will join 33 other hemispheric heads of state for an agenda heavy on job creation and economic growth issues.

President Bill Clinton used an earlier summit to initiate a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which was to knit together 800 million consumers in the largest marketplace in the world, and to promote democracy, security and economic cooperation and other U.S. interests. Not all worked, but the spirit of the summit resulted in better U.S.-Latin American relations and optimism in the region.

The current state of U.S.-Latin American affairs could use an encouraging jump-start to warm up ties, which recently have been defined more by national leaders talking past each other than with each other. The problems include:

The 2002 coup that deposed Venezuela's elected President Hugo Chavez for 48 hours sparked doubts about U.S. sincerity with regard to democracy. Mr. Chavez remains a regional mischief maker, backing narco-terrorists and peasant rebellions in neighboring Colombia and Bolivia, throwing Cuba's Fidel Castro economic lifelines, pitching a South American version of OPEC for control of the region's oil and spinning tales of a pending U.S. invasion of Venezuela.

The economic crisis in Argentina and ripple effect anxiety in Brazil that bled more than $60 billion from the two nations and pushed nearly 100 million people into poverty was a blow to countries central to U.S. interests in the region. Anti-American voices have been amplified since then after a proposed U.S. support package never materialized.

The $14 trillion FTAA - the amount represents the total gross domestic product of the FTAA area - has been on hold between U.S. and Latin negotiators for two years. Their disagreement is best symbolized by U.S. intentions to protect its steel industry and subsidize its agribusiness while lecturing Latin Americans against doing the same thing. A free trade agreement with Central America and one being negotiated with Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are alternatives but a long way from the mega-free market pledged in 1994.

With this backdrop, Mr. Bush's attendance at the summit in Mar del Plata should be saluted as smart, maybe even daring. There are more than enough pressing items in Washington and potentially strained moments looming around the summit to offer the president an out - from an encounter with the volatile Mr. Chavez to street protests organized by Brazil's ruling political party.

But his three days in Latin America could signal a change in direction for the region and give Mr. Bush a chance to build the personal connections with fellow leaders that often are the difference between strictly formal relations and real achievements.

Latin American leaders would be smart to look past the hubbub surrounding Mr. Bush at home and remember that hemispheric fortunes rise and fall in synch. China may be buying every commodity from Brazilian soybeans to Chilean copper and Jamaican sugar, but cheap Chinese exports are undermining Latin American manufacturing.

Europeans have a long business record in Latin America, but U.S. foreign investment is still about $25 billion more. Some, especially in Venezuela, want to use oil for leverage against the United States, but economies throughout the Americas would sink if an embargo pushed the United States into recession. Only a U.S.-Latin America partnership can be counted on over the long haul to make the hemisphere prosperous, safe and free.

The gains that can come from a strong summit showing are tangible:

Homeland security can be enhanced by better intelligence, customs and immigration cooperation with neighbors that can do much to control who and what moves toward U.S. shores.

Energy uncertainty can be eased with investments and policy coordination in a region whose oil and natural gas reserves rival hot spots like Nigeria, Angola, Indonesia, Oman and Qatar but lack the infrastructure or regulations to get them efficiently to market.

Drug cartels, organized crime and violent street gangs can be better broken up with regional collaboration.

For Mr. Bush, a strong show of friendship, a display of gratitude for hemispheric support after 9/11 and an acknowledgment that the United States can do more to spur regional economic growth and political stability can change the tenor between Washington and its neighbors. Followed with renewed efforts on trade expansion, economic cooperation and energy development that can improve living standards region-wide, and this summit could revive Latin America's confidence in the United States while beginning to reshape the Bush presidency internationally.

Not bad goals for this Latin America trip and not a bad legacy for Mr. Bush to build over the next three years.

Mack McLarty served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and special envoy to the Americas. Richard Klein served in the Clinton State and Commerce departments. Their e-mail address is kissingermclarty@yahoo.com.

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