March 7, 1999
Clinton bound for Central America to view Mitch's wrath

                  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 and
                  good will Clinton will make during his four-day visit will be valuable in their
                  own right.

                  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 the region
                 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 can
                   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
                  democracies teeter."

                  The devastation already has proven to be a difficult test for fledgling
                  democratic governments. And the aftershocks are unlikely to respect
                  national borders.

                  "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 of
                  emergency aid.

                  The region is a lucrative market. U.S. exports to Central America have more
                  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 the
                  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
                  Marsha Berry.

                         White House Correspondent Chris Black contributed to this report.