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Free trade is focus as Americas summit opens

U.S. cool to Canadian leader's possible visit to Cuba

April 18, 1998
Web posted at: 6:54 p.m. EDT (2254 GMT)

SANTIAGO, Chile (CNN) -- Leaders of 34 countries in the Americas opened a two-day summit Saturday, focusing on efforts to create a giant free-trade zone that would include 800 million people and stretch from Alaska to Cape Horn.

In his opening remarks, U.S. President Bill Clinton pledged to forge ahead with plans for U.S. participation in the free-trade zone, despite the reluctance of Congress to give him so-called "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements with other countries in the Americas.

"The United States may not yet have fast-track legislation, but we will," Clinton said. "I assure you that our commitment to the free trade area of the Americas will be in the fast lane of our concerns.'

"More than 40 percent of our exports go to our neighbors seated on this platform. We can only continue to grow and create jobs in the United States if we continue to reach out to our neighbors for more open markets and freer trade," he said.

Chile's Frei: Must fight protectionism

But other leaders, while expressing sympathy with Clinton's plight, made it clear they would forge ahead, with or without the United States.

President Eduardo Frei of Chile, the summit host, noted that Latin American countries have already begun reaching free trade agreements among themselves, and he urged protectionists in the United States and elsewhere to yield to the trend of economic integration.

"We must continue fighting against protectionism," Frei said. "It is essential that the free-trade rhetoric is translated into reality."

Cuba's exclusion causes friction

Clinton and Frei
Clinton, Frei and Frei's wife Marta   

Despite displays of friendship and unity marking the opening of the summit, some of the irritants between the United States and its American neighbors bubbled to the surface.

At the insistence of the United States, Cuban President Fidel Castro was not invited to the summit. Well-informed sources tell CNN that regional leaders are discussing ways to reintegrate Cuba into the summit process, despite staunch opposition from Washington.

"Many, many countries want to do something ... that we can contribute to the solution of the most important political problem we have in the Americas, which is Cuba," said Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States.


U.S. officials are reacting coolly to reports that Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, whose country is scheduled to host the next summit, would go to Cuba before the end of the month to meet with Castro.

"That, of course, is his decision," said White House counselor Mack McLarty, who serves as Clinton's special envoy to Latin America.

McLarty said the United States hopes Chretien would "emphasize the importance of democracy in Cuba" if he makes the visit.

But Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori said Cuba's exclusion was "unfair because the country is no threat to anybody."

"The Cuban president should be allowed to come here to express his views and listen to the criticism of him," he said.

Sources close to Chretien say there's concern that if Cuba isn't invited to the next summit in Canada, it will create domestic political problems there. Cuba has been excluded until now because it is not considered a democracy.

OAS could have role in evaluating drug fight

Summit leaders also embraced the idea of letting the OAS have a role in evaluating how well countries are fighting drug trafficking. Clinton hopes this mechanism can eventually replace the certification process, mandated by U.S. law, under which Latin American countries' drug-fighting efforts must be re-evaluated each year.

The leaders of Mexico, Colombia and some other Latin American nations view the certification process as too heavy-handed.

"Colombia was victimized by decertification [by the United States] for more than two years," said Colombian President Ernesto Samper. "Since then, we have opposed whenever possible unilateral certification."

While White House officials believe this change will lead to greater international cooperation, Clinton's critics say it will leave the United States with fewer tools to punish nations that don't cooperate in the war on drugs.

Clinton: Progress, but poverty still too high

In his opening address, Clinton praised Latin America for free market reforms that in 1997 produced 5 percent average growth and the lowest inflation in 50 years. But he said more needs to be done to tackle the hemisphere's social ills.

"Poverty throughout the hemisphere is still too high. Income disparity is too great, civil society too fragile, justice systems too weak. Too many people still lack the education and skills necessary to succeed in the new economy," he said.

To that end, summit participants approved a three-year, $6 billion loan program to expand primary education to all children in the region by 2010, as well as providing secondary education to at least 75 percent of the hemisphere's young people by that same target date. The money will be used for new schools, textbooks and teacher training.

Education ministers from throughout the Americans are expected to meet in July in Brasilia, Brazil, to discuss those improvements.

Mrs. Clinton tours Indian cultural center

On Saturday, while Clinton met with the other leaders at the summit, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who accompanied her husband to Chile, visited a Mapuche Indian cultural center in Temuco, about 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of Santiago.

"I wanted to see for myself some of the changes and activities that are going on in local communities," she said. "The real work of improving people's lives has to go on in places like Temuco."

Mapuches are the largest indigenous ethnic group in Chile. They once numbered up to 2 million but have dwindled to about 800,000 since Chile was colonized in the 1500s.

Correspondents John King and Lucia Newman and Reuters contributed to this report.


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