Saturday, June 26, 2004

Kerry Woos Hispanics, Vows U.S.-Latam Partnership

By Patricia Wilson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat John Kerry courted the crucial Hispanic vote on Saturday by promising closer, more respectful U.S.-Latin America ties and relief from President Bush's "one-note insistence" on free-trade pacts.

Kerry, who next month will be formally anointed as Bush's challenger in the Nov. 2 election, promised to triple to almost $20 million the amount the United States contributes to the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions in the region and around the world.

He also proposed a council for democracy to work within the Organization of American States to resolve crises like those in Haiti and Venezuela, and a North American security perimeter to facilitate legitimate travel by "harmonizing" customs, immigration, security policies and travel documents.

Kerry envisioned a "community of the Americas" that would share goals such as the war on poverty and drugs but whose bottom line would be defense of democracy and the rule of law.

"We must look to our neighbors as partners, not second-class citizens," he told a conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Hispanics are the largest U.S. minority group. Bush narrowly won the White House in 2000 in part by cutting into the traditionally Democratic Hispanic base, drawing 35 percent of its vote. During that campaign, Bush promised "to look South, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency."

Except for trade policy -- in which he scored major victories with the completion of several agreements, Bush's commitment to Latin America waned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.


"Instead of being a good neighbor, the president has ignored a wide range of ills -- including political and financial crises, runaway unemployment and drug trafficking," Kerry said. "And his one-note policy toward Latin America of one-size-fits-all trade agreements have stripped the respect and partnership" that marked the 1990s.

The four-term senator from Massachusetts, who voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada and other pacts that have been blamed for job losses in the United States, said he would renegotiate the Central American Free Trade Agreement with El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

"Trade without respect is not what our neighbors want, and neither is one-note insistence on free-trade agreements," he said. "As president, I will fight for labor and environment protections in every single trade agreement."

Kerry, who has accused the Bush administration of helping to undermine elected governments in Haiti and Venezuela, said he would actively promote democracy in Cuba by supporting legitimate dissent.

"We can't sit by and watch as mob violence drives a president from office, like what happened in Bolivia or Argentina -- or even encourage him to flee as we did in Haiti," he said. "We will not welcome a government named by a military junta as was the case in Venezuela."

Kerry did not mention Cuban President Fidel Castro by name but, like Bush, he favors retaining the 4-decade-old embargo against Havana that is popular among Cuban-Americans who wield considerable political clout in Florida, where the 2000 election was decided.

Kerry's outreach to America's 38 million Hispanics also included reducing the cost of sending money back to their home countries, supporting a congressional proposal for a $500 million social investment fund and tripling the number of educational exchanges.