Bush to talk drugs, trade, immigration on Latin trip
BY JAMES KUHNHENN
Herald Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - President Bush visits Latin America this week to focus on
combating drugs and expanding trade, issues that have been redefined in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
The brisk four-day, three-country tour, which begins today, aims to reassert
U.S. leadership in a
hemisphere that is eager to get back on the president's radar. The largely symbolic excursion will reunite
Bush with Mexican President Vicente Fox and showcase the fledgling democracies of Peru and El Salvador.
It could serve Bush well politically at home, where he has made a point
of courting Hispanic voters, the
fastest-growing vote bloc.
But he will travel relatively empty-handed. The Senate has yet to act on
an Andean trade agreement and
on legislation that would tighten border security and provide extended stays to thousands of
undocumented immigrants, both key initiatives aimed at Latin America that would have enhanced Bush's
prestige south of the border.
Still, administration officials and foreign diplomats say, Bush's meetings
could set the stage for significant
breakthroughs on crucial regional issues such as immigration, commerce and narco-terrorism. The trip also
comes as Latin America is wrestling with domestic challenges, including slowing economies, rising
unemployment and lawlessness that has unnerved foreign investors.
Bush sees this trip through the prism of his war on terrorism. That illuminates
the foreign aid plan he will
present Friday in Monterrey, Mexico, to the International Conference on Financial Development. It also
colors immigration negotiations with Fox's government. And it alters the Andean war on cocaine and
narcotics trafficking, which the administration now views as a broader war on guerrilla insurgencies,
particularly in Colombia.
''This is what they would call in El Salvador a chapandongo -- basically,
a stew pot of issues,'' said Stephen
Johnson, a former State Department official who's now at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy
research center in Washington.
Here's how Bush's trip is expected to unfold:
• Monterrey, Mexico. The president first will participate in the United
Nations' financial development
conference, where he will submit his multibillion-dollar plan for more foreign aid to countries that meet
certain criteria on democratization, open markets and social improvements in health and education. The
plan, which in part aims to remove terrorist breeding grounds, calls for annual increases in aid beginning in
2004 that would add $5 billion by 2006, for a total of $15 billion a year, a nearly 50 percent increase over
Aid groups applauded the package, which requires congressional approval,
but they note that it still falls
short of other industrialized countries.
After the conference, Bush will meet with Fox, whom he last entertained
at his first White House State
Dinner just days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The meeting, which will be the eighth between the
two friends, comes as U.S. officials say relations between their countries are the warmest ever.
''I don't think it could be stronger,'' said Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor.
Liberalized immigration remains a nettlesome problem, however. Bush's visit
is expected to reenergize
negotiations, but no breakthroughs are expected.
Bush is under pressure to push Fox into economic reforms to improve Mexico's
living standards, which
remain at 1980 levels for most Mexicans.
''Mexico is very well aware that this is a problem that has a domestic
component,'' Mexican Ambassador
Juan José Bremer Martino said this week.
• Lima, Peru. On Saturday Bush will become the first U.S. president to
visit Peru. He plans to meet privately
with President Alejandro Toledo, the democratically elected successor to the authoritarian Alberto Fujimori,
and to participate in an Andean summit among leaders of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. All are
expected to seek more U.S. financial and military help in their war against drug lords.
Colombian President Andrés Pastrana has asked the United States
to expand its anti-drug mission in
Colombia to help fight rebels in the country's 40-year civil war. Bush has asked Congress for authority and
money to help with the guerrilla war as well as to work against narco-traffickers. Some members of
Congress react coolly to the idea.
In interviews with Latin American journalists before his departure, Bush
ruled out sending U.S. combat
troops to Colombia.
''I don't see any role beyond advising and training,'' he told the Telemundo
television network. ``It's
important for the Colombians to make the decision themselves, to get the will necessary to take on these
terrorists. We will help them help themselves.''
Not all the region's leaders are eager for such U.S. help.
''Peru has not asked for and does not need external support to combat terrorism
in the country,'' said
Diego García-Sayán, Peru's foreign minister.
Diplomats and analysts say Bush chose to visit Peru because it has adopted
democratic reforms and
appears eager to embrace open markets and expanded trade.
But Bush travels without the enhanced authority to negotiate trade deals
that he has asked Congress to
give him. The Senate this week also delayed a vote renewing the Andean Trade Preference Act, which
gives the four Andean countries duty-free access to the U.S. market for a variety of products.
• San Salvador. Bush will meet with President Francisco Flores and have
a working lunch with other Central
American leaders. El Salvador, Central America's third-largest economy, has emerged as a triumph of
democracy after its bloody civil war in the 1980s.
But the country is reeling from natural disasters, including a drought,
earthquakes and a hurricane that
have displaced thousands of people.
Kevin G. Hall of The Herald's world staff contributed to this report from Peru