Leaders debate behind closed doors
By MICHELLE RAY ORTIZ
MEXICO CITY -- Disposing of ceremonial protocol to encourage private
discussion, Latin American leaders began a closed-door summit meeting
Saturday to debate ways to improve their ability to cope with natural disasters
and increase financial security across the region.
Representatives of the 14-member Rio Group lined up to wave for cameras
door of Los Pinos, the home of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, before entering
for the annual one-day session.
Nine presidents and five cabinet ministers attended the main session.
Organizers planned the gathering as a retreat for the presidents, who
meet privately without aides.
When the group last met in September 1998, Latin America's largest stock
market, the Sao Paulo Stock Exchange, had just suffered a huge slide and sent
markets and currencies across the region tumbling. Asian economies were also
in crisis, as was Russia's.
One of the main themes at the 13th Rio Group summit Saturday was expected
be an examination of how Latin America withstood the turmoil.
``Mexico has weathered the storm fairly well and is one of the only
the region that didn't have negative growth,'' said Gray Neuman, a senior Latin
American economist at Merrill Lynch in New York.
In January, Brazil's currency, the real, was abruptly devalued -- losing
of its value in just three weeks. Since then, it has gained strength, stock markets
have surged and investors have slowly begun to return.
Neuman pointed to tightened monetary policy and fiscal responsibility
for the region's relative stability.
Michael May, a South America specialist at the Center for Strategic
International Studies in Washington, said the leaders also may discuss how to
keep corruption from affecting the distribution of disaster relief, specifically for
Central America is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Mitch,
which killed an
estimated 9,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage in October and
November. Allegations of aid being diverted from the needy have surfaced in
Nicaragua and Honduras.
Separately, foreign ministers of the Rio Group countries were meeting
for a June summit of Latin American and European Union leaders in Brazil.
The Rio Group was founded by eight countries in Brazil in 1986 -- Argentina,
Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. They were
joined later by Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Paraguay.
Two countries are the temporary representatives for their regions: Guatemala
Central America and Guyana for the Caribbean.