President Clinton is convening the Summit of the Americas with an eye toward moving the region toward free trade, but blunt-talking Latin American leaders may veer the summit from its choreographed script.
The summit - the first such gathering of hemispheric leaders in nearly 30 years - opens tonight with Clinton's formal greeting and a ceremonial dinner. Clinton was outlining in a midday speech his plan for reducing trade barriers and achieving regional economic growth.With a draft agreement already prepared for signing by leaders of the 34 summit nations, it would appear the three-day event was already signed, sealed and delivered.
However, no sooner had Guatemalan President Ramiro De Leon Carpio stepped off his plane under Miami's balmy, sunny skies Thursday than he blasted California's Proposition 187 as "a flagrant and massive violation of human rights, especially for children."
Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo reportedly plans to try to get summit presidents to repudiate the law recently approved by California voters that denies education and non-emergency health services to illegal aliens.
Argentine President Carlos Menem said he planned to put Cuba on the agenda, an issue Washington has sought to avoid. Cuba is the only country in the Americas not invited to the summit.
Central American nations are bent on forcing into the summit their wish for the United States to give special treatment to exports from 24 poor Caribbean and Central American countries.
President Alberto Fujimori of Peru said he expects the summit to have results.
"We cannot continue to talk and talk," he said. One of his goals: Gaining a commitment from the United States to give more economic aid to Latin America.
"What we have received so far is ridiculous," Fujimori said.
Clinton has worked hard to promote free trade, trying to convince Americans that they, and workers in other countries, will ultimately benefit if tariffs are eliminated and their products sold without barriers.
He touched on the theme upon arrival in Miami Thursday night.
"Every country in the world . . . is fighting a battle within itself between hope and fear, between believing in the best in its potential or walking away from the challenge," he said.
At the summit, the leaders are expected to commit their nations to conclude negotiations by 2005 on an Americas Free Trade Arrangement. That's an earlier timetable than the recent agreement by Asia-Pacific partners to create free trade by 2020.
Clinton administration projections suggest the United States stands to gain an increase of 2.5 million jobs in a free trade zone in the Americas.
"America cannot and will not succeed until we have more folks buying what we sell," Clinton said earlier Thursday.