Press Briefing on Central America Trip by Berger, Echaveste, Atwood, Romero, Geitner, and Maher

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 4, 1999


The Briefing Room

9:20 A.M. EST

MR. BERGER: Bright and early on Monday morning, the President will leave for Central America to view firsthand the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch last October, the most destructive national disaster ever to hit the Western Hemisphere. He's going to advance our effort to aid the region's recovery and reconstruction and to support its continued transition to peace, democracy and open markets. And he's going because our moral responsibility as a neighbor to this region coincides perfectly with our interests as a nation.

The trip will begin in Nicaragua in the town of Posoltega. That'sthearea, you may recall, where the mudslides washed away entire villages andclaimed hundreds of lives during the storm, and was the scene not only ofthegreatest destruction, but some of our earliest and most intensive reliefefforts, distributing everything from plastic sheeting to medicines, towaterpurification systems, to mosquito nets, to actually rescuing people whowere indistress.

The President will speak there with some of the survivors of themudslides and the devastation. He'll address the people who live in thearea,and meet with Nicaraguan President Aleman.

Tuesday we will be in Honduras. The President will arrive at a Honduran military base in Soto Cana, which also has been the base of operations for Joint Task Force Bravo, which has overseen the U.S. military relief effort for the entire region. He will speak to U.S. and Honduran troops, as well as local residents, then go to Tegucigalpa to meet with the Honduran President, Mr. Flores, to discuss the reconstruction effort with the President, local leaders and NGOs.

On Wednesday, we will be in El Salvador, where our focus will bemore onthe region's transformation, both political and economic. The Presidentwilldeliver the main speech of the trip to the legislative assembly in SanSalvador,and meet with President Calderon.

And the trip then ends in Guatemala. On Wednesday evening, the President will join in a discussion on that country's successful peace process. As you know, after 36 years, peace has come to Guatemala after a civil war which cost roughly 100,000 lives. And he will take part, then, on Thursday, in a regional summit in Antigua, a town in the mountains outside of Guatemala City.

Let me simply emphasize a few points about the trip. First of all, I think it's most important to keep in mind the scale of the devastation that Hurricane Mitch rendered. More than 9,000 people were killed, equal number are still missing. A disaster of this scale in the United States, just to give us a sense of proportionality, would have killed 80,000 people and displaced 25 million.

In some areas, entire crops were lost, which means, of course, that tensof thousands of farmers have lost their livelihood, at least for the nearfuture. A third of the schools in Honduras were either damaged ordestroyed.The infrastructure that took decades to build was wiped out in a matter ofhoursor days.

We need also, I think, to remember the extraordinary progress thisregion has been making before it was hit by this act of nature. This is aregion that has been transformed in the past decade from a period in whichsearing civil wars claimed tens of thousands of lives in El Salvador andNicaragua and Guatemala. The countries in the region over the past 10yearshave pursued peace, they've pursued reforms that brought democracy andmarketeconomies to all the region for the first time since they gainedindependence in1820. Accountable governments now focus on basic needs of their people --education, health care, rule of law -- and there's a new kind ofrelationshipwith the United States.

Now, a disaster of this magnitude presents the region with a fundamental choice; it can undo the region's progress, or it can work and the countries of the region can work together to protect and even strengthen that progress. In fact, if the reconstruction is managed correctly, as the leaders seek to do, if the effort is inclusive and transparent, it carves out a new role for local governments and NGOs, if it recognizes that in the long run you have to protect the environment to protect your people. Then, over time, the region could emerge even stronger than before the storm.

That is the intention of the leaders in the region, which theycommunicated to President Clinton when they were here not so long ago.That isto give the people of Central America a chance to rebuild better andstronger.And we have a clear interest in lending a hand. We obviously want CentralAmerica to remain a region of strong, stable democracies, a region not incrisis, not focused on day-to-day survival or dependent on outsideassistance,but one that is healthy and growing. We want to sustain a flow of tradeandinvestment that's played a vital role in insulating our economy from thetroubles in the global economy elsewhere.

U.S. exports to Central America have more than tripled since 1990toabout $7.5 billion. So we want to keep the region growing. People feelthatthey can stay and build their future there, rather than increase thepressure tomigrate as work diminishes.

Our relief effort has embodied both the scale of the disaster andourstake in the region. It's the largest relief effort directed at anynaturaldisaster in our nation's history, at its height, involved over 5,000militaryand civilian personnel on the ground in Central America, unprecedentedpartnership between our military, our NGOs, AID and people in thegovernments ofthe region.

The President has asked Congress for $956 million in emergencysupplemental funding for reconstruction in Central America, as well as theCaribbean nations that were damaged by Hurricane Georges. And we needstrongbipartisan support so that we can see this through. The trip will focusattention on thesteps we need to take in Central America to promote its long-term recoveryanddevelopment, including debt relief and lowering barriers to trade.

Now, let me add one other element. Today we will be transmittingtoCongress and the U.S. Trade Representative's Office will be briefing latertoday, I think at 1:00 p.m., the administration's proposal for an enhancedCaribbean Basin Initiative program. The bill would authorize the President toprovide enhanced temporary trade benefits to Caribbean Basin countries.Theseenhanced benefits would help the Caribbean-Central American countriesrecoverfrom the serious damage that I've described. It would also reaffirm ourcommitment to these countries and encourage them to adopt policies thatwillfacilitate their eventual participation in a broader free trade agreementof theAmericas.

The trade benefits under the bill would apply to textile andapparelproducts assembled from U.S. fabric, textile handicrafts, and allnon-textileproducts that are currently excluded from the CBI program. There's been adisparity, as you know, that's been created by virtue of the benefits forMexico, and the different degree of benefits in the Caribbean and CentralAmerica, which has had a detrimental impact on those countries. Forcoveredtextile products, the President would be authorized to eliminate all duties andquantitative restrictions. There will be safeguard provisions in case ofimportsurges, similar to those under NAFTA.

The proposal would provide immediate duty-free and quota-freetreatmentof textile and apparel products if they are one of three categories:they'reassembled in the region of fabric made in the United States from U.S. yarn, cutin the United States; two, they are cut and assembled in the region fromU.S.fabric containing U.S. yarn; or three, they are handmade, folklore,hand-loomedarticles.

Now, I would note that this is an increase -- the 100 percentduty-freetreatment here is an increase from the 50 percent duty-free treatment thatwascontained in our bill last year, to take account of the quite differenteconomicsituation that the region faces now because of the disaster.

For non-textile products, the President would be authorized to cut tariffs to the rate that would be applicable to Mexican goods under NAFTA. The benefits would apply from October 1, '99 through June 30, 2001. Now, to be eligible for these enhanced benefits, the Caribbean countries would have to meet certain eligibility requirements that also exist for current CBI benefits. They include whether they have undertaken WTO obligations on or ahead of schedule, whether they're participating in FTA negotiations and taken other steps necessary for ultimate accession to a free trade area.

It also provides discretionary eligibility criteria, coveringissuesfrom narcotics cooperation intellectual property protection, investmentcorruption, worker rights, environmental protection. The President wouldcontinue to examine these criteria to determine the extent to which thecountries should continue to have these enhanced benefits.

The CBI report, which will be submitted by the President, includesrecommendations concerning the extent to which each beneficiary countryshouldcontinue to enjoy the enhanced benefits under the bill, and as I say, thePresident could reexamine that from time to time if the countries were notmeeting the eligibility requirements. So this will be a second importantinitiative with Congress that we would hope to cooperate, work withCongress onas part of the overall effort that we make to try to put this region --keepthis region on thepath to peace, democracy and open economies.

Q They have to buy the fabric in the United States?

MR. BERGER: Correct.

Q It gets shipped down there, they cut it, shape it, make it, whathave you, and then when it comes back it's duty-free and quota-free.

MR. BERGER: That's correct.

Q What's the value on this, Sandy? What's the value of theNCBI?Since he just spoke about it, if you know about it.

MR. BERGER: Well, let's see if we -- we'll get the answer to thatforyou.

Q Mr. Berger, on the Truth Commission in Guatemala, do youexpect

Q They'll speak in your name, sir?


MR. BERGER: Hardly. (Laughter.)

MS. ECHAVESTE: Right, hardly. I would never presume to speak inSandyBerger's name. I think that Sandy's given you a -- my name is MariaEchaveste-- has given you a full run-down on the trip so, rather than make anystatement,why don't we take questions.

Q Well, can you start with that idea of what's the value ofthisin NCBI? What will be the primary countries that benefit? Which will beexcluded? Sort of a -- any idea how significant this is?

MS. ECHAVESTE: Well, what's significant --

Q Where is NBC and CBS?

Q I don't know.

MS. ECHAVESTE: Do we care?

Q I don't.

MS. ECHAVESTE: Actually, when the Central American Presidents came inDecember, this was at the top of their lists. They were very appreciativeofthe enormous amount of emergency aid that the folks behind me, and theirfolks,provided. But in terms of the long-term reconstruction needs, having whattheycalled "NAFTA parity" or the Caribbean Basin Initiative was extremelyimportant.The details, I confess, in terms of countries -- we've been talking aboutit. Ican't rattle them off, we'll give you a fact sheet. I think the importantthingto stress is, as Sandy said, that our -- last year's initiative was 50percent.We are accelerating the 100 percent reduction in duties to spur economicgrowth.

So, as you all know, trade is always a volatile issue, but we hopethatthe needs of this region will help spur bipartisan support.

Q Is this NAFTA parity, then, for these countries?

MS. ECHAVESTE: It's a part of it. It's not full. It's not NAFTA. Itgets closer.

Peter, do you want to add anything else?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: Only that the benefits of CBI, as itwaspassed in the early '80s, began to erode as NAFTA kicked in. And this isanattempt to get closer to conditions that exist in NAFTA, not just fortextiles,but also the non-textile areas that Sandy enumerated, and to make it moreattractive for investors to rethink Central America and the Caribbean intermsof particularly textile investments.

Q Can you give us a delegation -- official delegation, andhowmany congressmen and senators are going with him?

MS. ECHAVESTE: At the moment, we're still -- we hope to take three tofive members of Congress. But as you know, there's the education Ed-flexbillnext week. We have interest from folks like Senator Graham, Senator Dodd,others. We're encouraging Republicans to come with us. But there's a lotofwork and this is right when they're in session, Monday through Thursday.So Iprobably won't know until Saturday or Sunday who is actually coming withus.

Q How about the administration? The President and the FirstLady?

MS. ECHAVESTE: The President, the First Lady, SecretaryRichardson, theSecretary of the Army, Luis Caldera, because of the tremendous support wegotfrom the Department of Defense. And we're still finalizing the list.

Q Can you estimate the amount of money sent so far in reliefefforts by all United States agencies and --

MR. ATWOOD: On the relief itself, I'll give you a statistic that I think is interesting. From 1964 through last year, we had spent a total of million on various disasters in Central America. This single disaster, Hurricane Mitch, we've spent $305 million on relief. This includes support for our military colleagues and their contribution to this as well. Sandy mentioned over 5,000 people in the region. This is the largest natural disaster we've ever handled as a government.

Q So far. Is that still going on or is that a total figure?

MR. ATWOOD: For the most part, we're now moving to a differentrehabilitation phase. We still have some military personnel in the region.

Obviously, some of our aid missions are still working on aspects of theproblem,because we're worried about diseases that occur after as a result ofdamagedwater systems and the like. But for the most part, we're moving intorehabilitation and now reconstruction.

The total amount, if the Congress, as we expect, gives us theentireemergency supplemental, $956 million, is a $1.2-billion expense, but wellworthit, given the amount of money that we've put in this region for otherpurposesin the past.

Q Is the President going to make any sort of statement about immigration policy during this trip?

MS. ECHAVESTE: That issue is certainly to come up, and probably in each country. As you may know, the administration granted temporary protected status for Honduras and Nicaragua as two countries most damaged by the hurricane, but only granted a state of deportation for those nationals from El Salvador and Guatemala. That stay of deportation expires on Monday. So I suspect that we're going to get a lot of questions.

The stay is not anticipated to be extended because there's no basis for extending it. The countries can't absorb return of illegal immigrants. We are working, however, on a related issue. The Nicara law, which was passed in -- I guess it was that long ago -- which would legalize the status of a couple of hundred thousand Salvadorans and Guatemalans. We're in the process of evaluating regulations. When I say "we" I mean the Department of Justice and the INS -- should be issuing a regulation to set the process and which should help, we hope, legalize the status of many of these people.

Q Mr. Atwood, you say you're moving into a new phase. Couldyouspeak a little more concretely about what exactly is not completed and what nowremains to be done?

MR. ATWOOD: I'd just say that the estimates of the loss in thesecountries is anywhere from $7 billion to $10 billion. But the loss couldbeeven more serious if we can't get these economies up and running, restorejobs,restore the agriculture sector and the like. This is the most crucialmoment,and this is why this is such an emergency. These countries will be incrisisprobably for the next few years.

But right now, people are trying to decide whether or not they're going to move to Costa Rica or the United States or whatever, or whether they think they might have a livelihood for themselves in their own country. If we continue to see the infrastructure damage, the roads out, the bridges out, people can't get their crops to market, if we see small businesses destroyed and don't make available to them credits so that they can resume their businesses, basically you're going to see further losses, because they will not realize their potential with respect to economic growth.

That's why it's such an emergency. That's why the United Statesneedsto move fast. We do have some $6 billion worth of commitments from theinternational community -- the World Bank, the Inter-American DevelopmentBank,and the like. But we can move faster. We can get our resources into thefieldand get the construction projects moving faster with the supplementallegislation that we've requested on the Hill.

Q Do you expect that the Truth Commission report of last week would come up for discussion?

MS. ECHAVESTE: It may. Peter, I don't know if you want to add tothat.It certainly was a very thorough report.

Q Can you address the allegations of U.S. involvement overtheyears?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: It's certainly the topic of the day in Guatemala, and I think that we have been very much a part of the whole reconciliation process, and Brian can talk about how much money we've actually put towards the whole peace plan in Guatemala. Certainly the Historical Clarification Commission itself received a couple of million dollars from the United States. But more generally, I think that if you read the report -- and I guess all that we've been able to read thus far is the executive summary, it's about 80 pages -- you get a very clear sense for the fact that Guatemalans have taken responsibility for what's happened on their own shoulders. And they characterize it as a politics of exclusion, riddled with all kinds of reprisals and retribution and violence that goes back generations in Guatemala. Certainly, it became a site of the Cold War standoff in our hemisphere. I think that without digging too far back, military assistance to Guatemala was cut in the early '80s and I don't think has been completely restored since then.

There was a liaison relationship between the Central IntelligenceAgencyand Guatemala intelligence, and essentially we are still waiting for thefullreport so that we can really wade through it and see what it says.

Q Mr. Romero, can I follow up on that? Yesterday, theForeignMinister of Guatemala spoke with us and told us that some Guatemala peoplearelooking to use their judicial system in Guatemala to sue the members of the CIAfor this report -- whose names are in this report. He met with youyesterday.He spoke about it with you?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: That issue did not come up, and I have this is the first time I'm hearing it.

Q But the U.S. government will be able to cooperate withthesepeople who are trying to get CIA officials into the courts?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: I can't answer a hypothetical, but Icantell you that we have turned over thousands of pages of information to theClarification Commission and we'll continue to support their work.

Q General, what is your area here, may I ask?

MS. ECHAVESTE: Why are you standing here? I that the question?

GENERAL MAHER: I'm here prepared to address the military'scontributions, both in the initial emergency phases during therehabilitationand now during the restoration. So I can certainly address that.

MS. ECHAVESTE: If anybody has a question for the military --

Q How many soldiers do we have there?

GENERAL MAHER: During the initial phases of this, as Mr. Bergerdescribed, we had over 5,600 of our forces deployed. In the initialphases, ourfour deployed elements, both in Panama as well as JTF Bravo, were assistedinthe emergency efforts and the medical supplies and supplies that had to bedelivered. Over 1,000 people saved in this emergency phase, lives saved.Over35,000 people eventually treated by medical teams, and of course, engineerunits, transportation to include aviation type units and service supportandcommunications units were able to participate during this phase of theoperation.

Principally, active component, soldiers rising to the need, ortroopsrising to the need, with some guard reserve support, especially in airlift, andnow we're transitioning from those 5,600 troops who supported the effortinto amajor reserve component, principally driven, exercise program, which has beenenhanced to support the affected countries between now and the end of thefiscalyear in September. So about -- it goes to about 20,000 guard and reserveforceswho will be employed. But on any typical day there will be about1,200-1,300 inthe region, as they rotate to serve.

MS. ECHAVESTE: One of the things that the military has provided in thisreconstruction phase, one of the sites we're going to visit is a bridgethat themilitary helped rebuild, a very key bridge in Honduras, and working closely withthe Army Corps as well.

Q I have a question about what kind of potential there is for U.S.companies to actually help with the reconstruction there. Do you have anideaof how big a project that would be and what sort of projects Americancompaniescould help with?

MS. ECHAVESTE: Under AID's leadership there was a conference held in December in which we invited not just non-governmental, but the private sector to explain and provide information as to the extent of the damage and the need for assistance. We were, frankly, looking for voluntary contributions, but there is no question that there are opportunities for assisting the growth. So there is a lot of communication in particularly the leveraging of the international resources and finances, and we hope the supplemental -- a good chunk of money is for reconstruction and rebuilding infrastructure.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: If I could just add one thing and that is the President and CEO of OPIC will be accompanying us, and he has announced in a ceremony here just a few weeks ago a $200-million facility for U.S. -- for credits and insurance for U.S. companies interested in investing in Central America.

Q If you could just be a little bit more specific -- do youhavean idea of how big a possible market this could be?

MS. ECHAVESTE: I think you heard Brian talk that depending onwhichcountry, the extent of the damage is anywhere between $7 billion to $10billion.It's a huge -- the best analysis is that these countries could have beensetback by several decades in terms of their infrastructure. And it's in ourinterest not just as a powerful neighbor to the North, but in terms of oureconomic opportunities, as Sandy said, to help these countries rebuild asquickly as possible. And that's why we work with the internationalcommunity and our seeking and hope the Congress will pass theemergencysupplemental.

Q You're talking about what -- telecoms, water, what sort of

MS. ECHAVESTE: Everything. I mean, it's basically about that.

Q Domestic disaster usually flies through the Congress. What signals are you getting from the Hill as to how likely you are to get this money?

MS. ECHAVESTE: Well, until recently we had some very strongbipartisaninterest. There are many ties -- familial, cultural -- with domesticresidentsto these countries, and so there was -- when the disaster hit, Mrs. Gorewentdown. She took a bipartisan group. Mrs. Clinton went down; she hadmembers.So we've been working very hard on this, and we hope -- we are a littledismayedthat the mark-up today was postponed in the House, but we've not given upand wehope that next week's trip will highlight the need for this disaster.

Q Do you think you've lost some ground here, on that?

MS. ECHAVESTE: No, as I said, a little dismayed with the delay,butthere's a lot of interest, as I said, bipartisan. So we've got to workthroughall this.

GENERAL MAHER: Could I add one thing, Maria? I'm sorry, could Iaddone thing?

I testified to support the administration's request last week, andI wasvery pleased with the response. Congressman Callahan indicated they wouldmovevery quickly to this. They've had some discussions about what aspects ofthisbill are emergency and what are not, they think -- they feel that they need togo down and see this, apparently. And we welcome that, as long as theycontinueto expedite this. But I think that we're -- this is just a very minorsetback,that they didn't mark this up today. I think we're going to see thishappenvery, very quickly.

Q How much in the package is for debt relief, and how do yourespond to questions by some of the NGO community that there's simply notenoughbeing done? These are some of the most heavily indebted countries in theworld.

UNDER SECRETARY GEITNER: Part of what the President did initiallyis toput together a quite substantial multilateral package for debt relief,which isgoing to give, for Honduras and Nicaragua, a deferral of $600 million ininterest payments coming due in the next two years, which is a quitesubstantialamount of relief.

And we've also tried to put together a substantial additional package of new finance from the multilateral development banks and other international financial institutions, which will provide $800 million to those two countries over this period of time. That, I think, more than meets the estimated economic needs arising from the disaster, and I think is an exceptional degree of relief provided quite quickly.

Q Thank you very much.

Q Thank you.


Office of the Press Secretary

Office of the Press Secretary

Office of the Press Secretary

Central America Trip: Press Briefing by Secretary Caldera and General Wilhelm

Central America Trip Briefing: Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan Speaks With Reporters Aboard Air Force One

Press Briefing on Central America Trip by Berger, Echaveste, Atwood, Romero, Geitner, and Maher

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House | White House for Kids
White House History | White House Tours | Help
Privacy Statement


Site Map

Graphic Version

T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E