Latins Are Ready for True Partnership : Summit: With democracy taking hold, heads of state are eager to strike mutually beneficial agreements.

<i> Gert Rosenthal, a Guatemalan economist, is executive secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. </i>

For the first time in almost 30 years, and at the behest of President Clinton, Latin American and Caribbean heads of state (except Fidel Castro of Cuba) will meet this weekend in Miami with their North American counterparts.

Inter-American relations have undergone a sea change in these three decades, especially in the post-Cold War years. Thirty years ago, security considerations prevailed in the way the United States interacted with its southern neighbors. Today, economic considerations top the list. Thirty years ago, a highly asymmetrical relationship existed between the United States and each Latin American country, punctuated, on the part of the latter, by resentments, suspicions and even a measure of animosity. Today, the dialogue is more relaxed, mature and balanced. The enhanced presence of Canada in hemispheric affairs has also helped to mitigate many confrontational remnants of the past.

Change within Latin America has kept pace with the astounding transformations in the world economy and in international relations. Domestic insurrectional movements are giving way to consensus-building, and where authoritarian military regimes once prevailed, today a democratic culture is gradually taking root; virtually all heads of state are civilians, democratically elected.


The population of the region has grown from under 220 million in 1960 to 480 million today, although current rates of population growth are declining rapidly. Latin Americans are better educated (literacy is up from 66% to 89%; middle-school attendance increased from 15% to 56% and university attendance increased twelvefold), healthier (life expectancy is up from 56 to 69 years) and more urbanized (from less than 50% to more than 70%). And real per-capita gross domestic product increased from the U.S. equivalent of $1,200 to $2,100 (in 1980 prices) in spite of the prolonged and deep recession of the 1980s--a lost decade in terms of growth--while imports increased from $10 billion to $190 billion.

The content and scope of public policy have also changed markedly. Import substitution has given way to international competitiveness; populist experiments have been replaced by fiscal and monetary prudence; many public enterprises have been privatized, and macroeconomic policy-making has gained in coherence and stability. As a result, inflation is down, growth is up and exports are increasingly diversified. Intraregional trade grows at spectacular rates: In 1993, more than a fifth of total exports were within the region.

The concept of preferential, non-reciprocal treatment in trade between the United States and developing countries of the region is gradually giving way to preferential but reciprocal arrangements; these offer more stability in the long run than unilateral concessions, which can be withdrawn as easily as they are bestowed. In this respect, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States, open to extension to other countries of the region, is a pioneering innovation.

To be sure, many problems remain. With important differences between countries, marked contrasts exist between world-class opulence and lacerating privation. Unemployment and poverty are widespread. Human rights are still violated in some countries. Many institutions, including judicial systems and political parties, tend to be weak. Public administrations remain debilitated by the financial crunch of the 1980s. Investment ratios are insufficient to boost growth rates to truly satisfactory levels. Environmental degradation is affecting the region’s natural capital endowment and urban sprawl adversely affects the quality of life of millions. Physical infrastructure is inadequate.

These problems have national, regional and international implications. They also affect hemispheric relations in such vital areas as trade and financial flows, migration (legal and illegal), the exchange of technologies and the illicit traffic in drugs.

The heads of state meeting in Miami will have a chance to put inter-American relations on a new footing. In this spirit of more balanced and mature relations, Latin American and Caribbean leaders will arrive, not with a list of petitions, but rather with an agenda of mutually beneficial proposals for tapping the enormous potential of working together to seize joint opportunities and to solve common problems. Moreover, strengthening links between the countries of this hemisphere is not a zero-sum proposition that will somehow weaken the ties between those countries and the rest of the world. On the contrary, it should be viewed as a steppingstone toward a more open and integrated international economy.