Americas trade deal puts a glow on Clinton

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The Independent Online
The leaders of every country in the Americas except Cuba have pledged to negotiate within a decade a free trade area embracing 850 million people with a market of $13 trillion (£8 trillion).

Eight months in the making, but until a few weeks ago seemingly destined to be an empty ceremony, the 34-nation Summit of the Americas here - the first since 1967 - also produced commitments to attack some endemic evils: corruption, drug trafficking and money-laundering and environmental pollution. It "more than fulfilled expectations," President Bill Clinton told yesterday's closing session.

The centrepiece has been trade. In the first tangible dividend of the " Miami process," the three members of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the foundation of the more ambitious zone, formally invited Chile to become its first South American member.

However Mexico and El Salvador attacked the anti-immigrant mood in the US epitomised by California's proposition 187, and Peru's President, Alberto Fujimori, told Mr Clinton that efforts to curb the drug trade had been " a disaster," and urged the US to reduce consumption instead of demanding that Peru " put 200,000 peasants who cultivate the coca plant in jail."

While almost everyone wants to strengthen the Organisation of American States (OAS), disagreements persist over the right of members to intervene in other states in the interests of " strengthening democracy," a key summit goal. But the sense exists thatthe summit is a landmark, which might herald what Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, called " the renaissance of our hemisphere."

Whether it will have the other desired affect of prompting a renaissance of Mr Clinton's floundering presidency is another matter. But Miami will add to a string of trade achievements that may be his greatest legacy: the 1993 NAFTA pact linking the US, Canada and Mexico, this year's outlines of an Asian-Pacific accord or APEC (Asia-Pacificic Economic co-operation), approval of the new GATT round, and agreement to create the 'Free Trade Area of the Americas," or FTAA.

That cumbersome title reflects the perils of " alphabet soup" diplomacy. The pact was to have been called the Americas Free Trade Area or AFTA. But in Portuguese, one of the region's main languages, 'afta' means a cold sore of the mouth.

Shorter on euphony, FTAA is being heralded as a breakthrough for a hemisphere long scarred by coups and civil rights abuses, military dictatorships and poverty. Unlike APEC which vaguely provides a 2020 target for removing tariff barriers without specifying how, it stipulates that negotiations must be completed within 10 years.

The agreement was " concrete and specific," with" a highly detailed timetable," President Clinton declared in Miami's subtropical sunshine at Vizcaya Palace on Biscayne Bay where the working sessions took place. Sixteen working groups are to be set up and trade ministers will meet next month. A follow-up summit is set for 1996 in Bolivia.

By then Chile should have joined NAFTA, though much will depend on whether the Republican Congress grants Mr Clinton "fast track' authority. Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker-to-be, offered fast track, which requires only a Yes-or-No vote, for future trade pacts - but only if environmental and labour issues were left out. This could pit the White House against two important Democratic constituencies.

The summit skirted Cuba. President Carlos Menem of Argentina said that Cuba had not been invited because it was not a democracy. Most states, especially Canada and Caribbean countries, disagreed. Washington granted visas for 11 Cuban reporters to cover the summit.