The last two years have been problematic for U.S.-Latin relations as Congress voted down fast-track trade authority, cooled on a hemispheric free-trade agreement and intensified its criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Throughout most of this period, Thomas F. ''Mack'' McLarty has done what he does best - labored quietly on the sidelines, kept Latin leaders and opposition candidates from growing too angry at the U.S. change of heart and fostered relationships essential if and when Washington becomes re-engaged.The Summit of the Americas that ended Sunday may be Mr. McLarty's last big hurrah. The former chief executive office of Arkla Inc., a natural gas producer, is expected to return soon to the private sector. If he does, it's essential that someone with similar skills and presidential access be put in charge of this vital region.

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