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SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS SET LOFTY, ACHIEVABLE GOALS

SHARE SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS SET LOFTY, ACHIEVABLE GOALS

Realistically, the 34 nations that attended the Summit of the Americas in Miami are a long way from forming the hemispheric free-trade zone they set as a goal.

But in an age where global trade cooperation is becoming a trend, the stated goal of forming such a union within 10 years may not be unrealistic. In any case, the chances seem much brighter today than they were in 1967, the last time Latin American nations got together with the United States and tried to work out problems.That effort was doomed by U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as well as by countless coups and revolutions in Latin America. No one can predict the future, but the political systems represented at the summit last week looked significantly more promising than those in attendance 27 years ago. Back then, 10 of the 27 leaders attending were dictators. This time, all 34 were democratically elected.

The five-page Declaration of Principles signed on Sunday should be viewed as a healthy start not only toward the establishment of a free trade zone that extends from Alaska to Argentina, but toward greater economic stability and prosperity in many struggling Latin American countries. If the effort is successful, the continents of North and South America could become the world's largest market, comprising 850 million consumers who purchase $13 trillion worth of goods and services.

But plenty of obstacles stand in the way. One need look no further than the 23-page Plan of Action signed at the summit for signs of looming problems. For example, the plan is mealy-mouthed when it comes to banks reporting the suspected laundering of drug money. Rather than requiring such reporting, it only encourages it.

Unless Latin American countries can keep drug lords from controlling governments and ruining economies and living standards, they have no hope of joining the list of productive, modern states - no matter how freely they trade with other nations.

Other goals in the document call for improvements in legal and political institutions as well as greater respect for the environment and for the rights of women. Again, these are worthy goals, but they will take time and effort to achieve.

Then there is Cuba, a nation with a disastrous economy whose dictator, Fidel Castro, wasn't invited.

Despite these obstacles, the summit was a positive step toward a more unified and stable Latin America, as was the decision Sunday to invite Chile to join the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trade and foreign investment offer the best hope for improving the economic plight of the Americas. The summit has set goals worth working toward.