Bush Looks South Of The Border

George W. Bush set out Friday to dispel nagging doubts about his grasp of foreign affairs, focusing on Latin America, the region he says effects the U.S. most and which he claims he knows best.

"Should I become president, I will look south, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency," Bush said during an appearance at Florida International University in Miami.

Calling for free trade from the top of Canada to the tip of South America, Bush offered a helping hand to struggling democracies, a clenched fist to Castro’s Cuba and thumbs down to Clinton administration policies, reports CBS News Correspondent Bll Whitaker.

"My word to you, Mr. Castro: Let your people live in freedom," Bush said.

"I challenge the Castro regime to surprise the world and adopt the ways of democracy," Bush said. "Until it frees political prisoners, and holds free elections and allows free speech, I will keep the current sanctions in place."

The Texas governor said the Clinton administration "dropped the ball" in securing new trade deals with some Latin American nations. Bush said one of his first acts as president would be to try to persuade Congress to re-enact so-called fast-track authority.

That would enable his administration to resume suspended free-trade talks with Chile and other Latin American nations, Bush said.

Bush Outlines Relations With Latin America
If elected president, Bush pledged to:

  • Push for a summit a few weeks after Election Day with Mexican leaders to keep relations between the countries "moving forward";
  • Ask Congress for $100 million for "micro-credit" organizations in Latin America, with help from World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, to provide small, no-collateral loans to the poor who set up businesses;
  • Hire more border patrol agents and reform the Immigration and Naturalization Service to crack down on illegal immigration and drug trafficking;
  • Establish an "American Fellows Program" in which young men and women from those nations would be invited to work in the U.S. government;
  • Call on Latin American governments to lift barriers of bureaucracy and over-regulation that prevent the poor from creating legal small businesses.

  • The Texas governor moved on later Friday for a meeing in Dallas with Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox, who has stirred controversy with his proposal for more open borders with the United States. He met on Thursday at the White House separately with President Clinton and with Vice President Al Gore.

    In their hour-long talk, Bush said he made it very clear to Fox "that we will enforce the borders as long as I'm governor and if I'm the president, but in a humane way."

    "I don't know whether it will work or not, but I appreciate his optimistic vision," Bush added of the open-border proposal, saying it is important to boost Mexico's wages first. "When the wage differential narrows, then perhaps it is a strategy we can explore jointly."

    Fox said he hoped that Mexico under his leadership will be "a much better friend and partner" with both the United States and Canada.

    "We can build up a common future together," Fox said.

    Gore campaign spokeswoman Kym Spell said Bush's Latin American plans offered nothing new. She said everything Bush was proposing, the Clinton-Gore administration had already "proposed, initiated or tried to push through the Republican Congress."

    Latin America expert Louis W. Goodman said there's little reason at this point to think there will be major variations in how Bush or Gore would handle the region. Goodman, the dean of the School of International Service at American University, said, "There haven't been clear differences that have emerged between the two."

    But Goodman predicts Bush's free-trade agenda could be a hard sell here at home.

    "To have a broad range of programs that would enhance trade with Latin American countries there would have to be a lot of education of our legislators," Goodman said. "I don't think it’s something that our representatives are ready to embrace at this time, but they could if there was strong and imaginative leadership."