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RARE SUMMIT OF AMERICAS CAN’T EVADE TOUGH ISSUES

SHARE RARE SUMMIT OF AMERICAS CAN’T EVADE TOUGH ISSUES

For the first time in nearly three decades, leaders from all the nations in Latin America - except Cuba's uninvited Fidel Castro - will meet this week for a historic hemispheric summit. Whether it will produce more than generalities and platitudes is an open question.

The value of summits usually tends to be vastly exaggerated, but the three-day gathering in Miami on Friday offers a chance to redefine the relationship between the United States and the rest of the hemisphere, particularly as partners in trade. Much has changed in Latin America in the past decade, and the summit offers a chance to deal with the new realities.The Miami conference will draw 34 elected Latin leaders, along with large national delegations. Most seem to have their eyes on trade as the chief topic on the agenda, but issues of democracy and environmetal concerns also will receive attention.

Some voices are being raised in the United States calling for President Clinton to exercise leadership and focus the conference on one of those issues instead of trade. That may be asking more than the president can deliver.

All of the countries in the hemisphere - except Cuba - have elected governments, a remarkable condition given the history of Latin America. But many of those nominally free states are shaky at best, both economically and politically. Drugs, poverty and turmoil are threats nearly everywhere.

Yet trade and foreign investment offer the best hope for improving the economic plight of the Americas.

Some of the Latin leaders are disappointed that the Clinton administration has not moved faster to foster trade. For example, after the pact on NAFTA last year, Clinton failed to bring other Latin American nations - particularly Chile - into the treaty as they had anticipated.

In fact, in September the administration withdrew its request for "fast track" negotiating authority to bring Chile in as a fourth member of NAFTA. Such authority would mean that Congress could not alter any subsequent treaty but only approve or reject it.

As a result, Chile has largely put NAFTA on a back burner and is seeking membership in a South American Common Market. In addition, Chile, Canada and Mexico are talking about forming a NAFTA-like alliance that would leave the United States on the sidelines as an "observer."

Some countries are even talking about forging links to the European Community if they can't join NAFTA.

This lack of enthusiasm about a U.S. partnership stems from a perception that Clinton lacks political clout at home and that his administration is divided over Latin trade issues, preferring to focus on Asia. There is enough truth in that perception to make it difficult for Clinton to effectively wheel and deal at the summit.

The U.S. position on Cuba and the absence of Castro also don't sit well with some of the delegates who think the trade embargo against Havana has long outlived its usefulness.

The summit clearly is not going to be a harmonious political choir directed by the United States - at least it shouldn't be. A tough, hard-talking, free-spirited conference will do a lot more good for all the participants than a staged gathering that doesn't produce much more than pleasant generalities.