Los Angeles Times
June 27, 2004

Kerry Says U.S. Should Be a Better Neighbor to Latin America


By Matea Gold
Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry called Saturday for a closer relationship between the United States and Latin America, saying the Bush administration had not paid sufficient attention to some of the country's closest neighbors.

"Instead of being a good neighbor, the president has ignored a wide range of ills, including political and financial crises, runaway unemployment, drug trafficking," the Democratic presidential hopeful said in a speech to the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Kerry pledged to create a "community of the Americas" to help coordinate efforts to improve security for the U.S. and Latin America. "Neighbors look after neighbors, recognizing that we all have a stake in each other's future," he said. As part of the alliance, he said, he would increase funding for programs that promote development and strengthen democratic institutions in Latin America.

Bush was also invited to address the nonpartisan organization, which began its annual convention late last week in Washington. The president's campaign chairman, former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, addressed the group for him Friday as Bush left for Europe before attending a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Turkey this week.

On Saturday, the Bush campaign responded to Kerry's criticisms of the administration's policies toward Latin America, saying the Massachusetts senator was ignoring the president's work with the region's leaders.

"Kerry's global pessimism ignores the reality that President Bush is rallying support for economic opportunity in the Americas through trade agreements that John Kerry opposes," said spokesman Steve Schmidt.

Kerry told the members of NALEO, which represents more than 6,000 officials around the country, that he would renegotiate the Central American Free Trade Agreement to seek stronger protections for workers and the environment.

Both campaigns are wooing Latinos, who could be pivotal in determining November's winner in several closely contested states, including Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.

In his address, Kerry touched on his proposals to improve the economy, education and healthcare. He reiterated his support for a program to let undocumented immigrants who had resided in the U.S. for long periods of time become citizens.

"Every year, hundreds seeking just a better life die in the desert…. Millions labor in the shadows of our country, in fear and often abused and exploited," he said. "I don't think our economy or our security are served by what we are doing today."

Arturo Vargas, NALEO's executive director, said Kerry's remarks impressed him. "It showed he understood who he was talking to," Vargas said. "He was talking to his colleagues, other policymakers. He was not just talking to us as Latinos."

But Vargas noted that in recent meetings NALEO had held with Latino voters, many said they thought both Kerry and Bush were ignoring their concerns. And he said there was a need for more Latinos in top positions in Kerry's campaign.

Kerry spokesman David Wade disagreed, pointing to Paul Rivera, Kerry's national political director, and campaign co-chairmen Henry G. Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor, and Antonio Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles City Council member.