The Miami Herald
May 20, 1999
Central America aid package, full of extras, nears passage

Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- After weeks of delay, families in Central America and the
Caribbean who lost homes, crops, jobs and businesses in last fall's hurricanes
are about to get some hopeful news: Final passage of a massive U.S. relief
measure to help rebuild the ravaged region is at hand.

The Senate is expected today to approve an emergency $15 billion spending
package to finance the war in Yugoslavia that also provides about $800 million for
reconstruction projects in the countries still recovering from hurricanes Mitch and

The House passed the catch-all bill Tuesday, and President Clinton, despite
objections to some provisions, has signaled that he will sign it. Members of the
Florida delegation said passage was long overdue.

``I am relieved that we did not forget the scenes of devastation in Central America
and the Caribbean,'' said Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who has been
pushing for the aid package since last fall.

``This is a grand slam home run for Central America, and because of the
emergency provisions, the Agency for International Development can begin
spending the money immediately,'' said Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Broward

The administration introduced its relief package in February and hoped for quick
passage before Clinton's trip to Central America in March. But the measure
became a hostage to Capitol Hill politics, with some members seeking to require
that programs such as food stamps be cut to cover the costs of emergency relief.

``Instead of quickly passing the request, Congress sent the aid package into
budgetary limbo by insisting on `offsets,' '' complained Raul Yzaguirre, president
of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group.

Central America disaster relief was also overshadowed by the Balkans war, the
administration's need to pay for it and Republican leaders' desire to increase
overall military spending and pay.

The result was an ever-growing ``must-pass'' piece of legislation that combined
war spending, Central American relief, aid for Midwest tornado victims and a
variety of senators' pet projects and nonemergency items. It was compared to a
Christmas tree with everyone adding ornaments, or as Deutsch called it, ``a forest
of Christmas trees.''

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, in urging passage this week,
warned that congressional wrangling was taking a toll: ``Our inability to reach an
agreement on the relief package has significantly delayed the reconstruction of
roads, schools and health clinics.''

The assistant administrator of AID, Mark Schneider, said Wednesday that the
relief package will jump-start a variety of projects: rural road work, water and
sewage systems, tools and seed for farmers and health efforts.

The largest component of the package, $621 million, will be targeted at
reconstruction, with $41 million for debt relief and $62 million in new spending by
the U.S. military. In addition, U.S. immigration will receive $80 million to handle
an expected influx of people leaving the region.

Most of the aid will go to Central America, with $29 million for the Dominican
Republic, $10 million for Haiti, $3 million for the eastern Caribbean and $10 million
for earthquake relief in Colombia.

``The rural poor suffered the most, and that's what we intend to respond to,''
Schneider said.

Graham also said Wednesday that he will keep pushing for increased trade
benefits to Central America, a move opposed by some textile interests and
unions who fear the loss of U.S. jobs.

                     Copyright 1999 Miami Herald