WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bill Clinton leaves Monday for Central
America to inspect the damage left behind by last year's Hurricane Mitch,
bearing little for the region's struggling nations but good will.
Clinton has asked Congress for an unprecedented U.S. aid package for the
region -- $956 million in emergency assistance, in addition to the $305
million already spent on hurricane relief -- but has not yet seen it approved.
But observers and administration officials say the gestures of concern
good will Clinton will make during his four-day visit will be valuable in their
Clinton will visit Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- the
countries hardest hit by the storm, which left more than 9,000 dead.
It displaced tens of thousands of people, destroying schools, homes, roads,
bridges and farms. Mudslides wiped out entire villages in the worst natural
disaster to hit the region in more than two centuries.
Thursday, Clinton is to convene a summit with Central American presidents
to make sure the post-Mitch crisis does not derail free-market economics
and democratic systems.
A region at a crossroads
U.S. officials say the effects of Hurricane Mitch will linger throughout
for several years. The hurricane was a devastating blow to an area just beginning
to recover from decades of civil war and poverty.
National Security Adviser Samuel Berger said Mitch has brought Central
America to a crossroads.
"It can undo the region's progress, or ... the countries of the region
work together to protect and even strengthen that progress," Berger said.
Added Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Georgia): "If you upset the economy that
much, and destabilize the people this much, you can make these fragile
The devastation already has proven to be a difficult test for fledgling
democratic governments. And the aftershocks are unlikely to respect
"The problems of the region, if they are not solved, spill over into our
borders and become our problem," said Bernard Aronson, former assistant
secretary of State for inter- American affairs. "If we are smart, as well as
decent, we will help this region recover and grow their economies, and
stabilize their democracies."
A lucrative market
Administration officials also argue that enlightened self- interest justifies
The region is a lucrative market. U.S. exports to Central America have
than tripled since 1990. Another concern is immigration: Since the hurricane,
thousands of Central Americans, desperate for work, have tried to enter the
United States illegally.
"Getting these countries back on their feet again economically diminishes
sense of necessity that people have that they have to leave," Sen.
Christopher Dodd (D- Connecticut) said.
Hillary Rodham Clinton will not accompany the president on the tour
because of a recurring back injury, her spokeswoman said Sunday. The first
lady aggravated a previously injured back muscle while on a skiing vacation
in Utah with her husband and their daughter, Chelsea, said spokeswoman
White House Correspondent Chris Black contributed to this report.