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Bush hails Mexico’s president, calls for focus on Latin America

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RICHARDSON, Texas — After calling for increased U.S. involvement and trade in Latin America, George W. Bush met with Mexican president-elect Vicente Fox on Friday, underscoring the importance of a region that he charges the Clinton administration treats as an "afterthought."

He lauded Fox as "a promising new president," praised Mexico for making a "success of democracy" and promised that under a Bush administration the United States and Mexico would enjoy a "special relationship."

And at an early morning speech in Miami, the Republican presidential nominee chided the Clinton administration for having "no strategy" for the region, declaring, "Those who ignore Latin America do not fully understand America itself. And those who ignore our hemisphere do not fully understand American interests."

To encourage free trade, Bush vowed that he would push for so-called fast track authority, which gives the executive branch broad powers to negotiate trade agreements without being second-guessed on each point by Congress.

"We were promised fast-track authority — as every American president has had it for 25 years, and yet this administration failed to get it," Bush charged. "We were promised a Free Trade Area of the Americas, yet it never happened. . . We have seen summits without substance, and reaction instead of action."

For all of his strong rhetoric, however, Bush plowed little new ground in the Miami speech — the second major foreign policy address of his bid for the White House.

Speaking at Florida International University, Bush vowed to expand existing policies, such as the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, which allows debtor nations to reduce their U.S. loan obligations in return for preserving rain forests. He voiced support for current efforts, such as the $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia recently approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton.

His main new foreign policy proposal was a vow to seek $100 million from Congress to help Latin American organizations that offer collateral-free "micro-loans" to poor people who want to be entrepreneurs.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's chief foreign policy adviser, said the Fox visit and Miami speech sent "a message that Latin America is of central interest to the United States and that it should be treated with the same constant attention and concern as places farther away. This is a very big departure from where this administration has been for the past eight years."

Kym Spell, spokeswoman for Bush's Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, derided Bush's diplomatic efforts Friday and defended the Clinton administration as having "one of the strongest records of any administration on pro-trade policies. We accomplished the North American Free Trade Agreement."

"Many of (Bush's) goals for Latin America have already been addressed by the current administration," Spell said, alleging that Bush's dealings with Mexico were "ineffectual."

While Friday was the first time Bush has fleshed out his stance on Latin American policy, he regularly touts his knowledge of Mexico on the campaign trail, telling audiences that Mexico's economic health is tied tightly to America's. More than half of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border belongs to his state; Texas exported $41 billion worth of goods to Mexico last year.

The border played a big part in Bush's Latin American outreach Friday. One key topic of discussion with Fox in Richardson, just outside of Dallas, was Fox's stated desire to open the U.S. border to hundreds of thousands of Mexicans seeking to live and work legally in this country.

But in brief remarks after their hourlong meeting, Bush said he told Fox that he has plans to enforce border laws. When workers in Mexico begin to earn more and have less need to come north, the two countries might discuss Fox's idea, he said.

"I don't know if it'll work or not, but what I appreciate is an optimistic vision, a vision that says . . . that when the wage differential narrows, then perhaps it is a strategy we can explore jointly," Bush said.

Fox lauded NAFTA and it's impact on his country and said that while the trade agreement has bettered Mexico, the United States and Canada, "We know it can be much better."