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World Perspective | DIPLOMACY

Clinton Tour of Hemisphere Focuses on Issues Close to Home

President will discuss drug trafficking, immigration and trade with leaders of neighboring nations.

May 03, 1997|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The United States' Latin and Caribbean neighbors are not always sure whether to complain about U.S. neglect or too much American attention. When there is an American intervention--such as the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and of Panama in 1989--demands mount for the United States to leave the rest of the Western Hemisphere alone.

But, more often, Latin and Caribbean governments chafe about neglect.

President Clinton will try to assuage that complaint next week with a visit to Mexico, Costa Rica and Barbados. This will be the first of three trips to Latin America that the president plans before the end of the year.

Aides do not believe that Clinton has neglected this part of the hemisphere. But he did not make a single trip to the region in his first term--not even to Mexico, where most presidents visit. That seemed like neglect, at least symbolic neglect, and, for that reason, his first visit will be looked on as symbolically important.

The Trip

Clinton arrives in Mexico on Monday and spends Tuesday mainly conferring with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and listening to reports from the U.S.-Mexico Binational Commission, made up of U.S. and Mexican Cabinet members.

On Wednesday, he tours the colonial town of Tlaxcala and the pyramids of Teotihuacan.

He has a number of ceremonial stops on his schedule--most important, his placement of a wreath at the monument to the Ninos Heroes, the Mexican cadets who died when U.S. Marines stormed Chapultepec Castle in 1847 during the Mexican War.

Wednesday night, Clinton leaves Mexico City and arrives in San Jose, Costa Rica. He confers with Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres, a West Point graduate, on Thursday morning, and they then join other Central American leaders and the president of the Dominican Republic for a meeting.

Clinton hopes to tour an environmental protection site Friday morning before departing for Bridgetown, Barbados. After meeting with Barbadian Prime Minister Owen Arthur on Saturday, Clinton will join him and other leaders of the Caribbean Common Market in a conference.

Drugs

A massive, tawdry Mexican octopus of crime feeds the drug appetite in the United States. Or, as the State Department says: "Well-entrenched polydrug-trafficking organizations based in Mexico have built vast criminal empires that produce illicit drugs, smuggle hundreds of tons of South American cocaine and operate drug distribution networks reaching well into the continental United States."

Most of the cocaine used in the United States comes across the border from Mexico, which also is a major source of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Mexican officials proudly cite their record in fighting this menace, including, in 1996, the seizure of more than 50,000 pounds of cocaine and destruction of more than 55,000 acres of marijuana plants and more than 35,000 acres of opium poppies. Also, Mexico's National Congress passed a law against money laundering for the first time.

But corruption has long been rampant in the Mexican civil service.

Zedillo was humiliated in February when Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, his top anti-narcotics official, was arrested on charges of taking bribes from a drug lord and dismissed. That ensured a torrent of criticism in the U.S. Congress when Clinton certified Mexico as a good partner in the war on drugs.

Now, Zedillo has disbanded his entire anti-narcotics force and created a new one built around a nucleus of trusted agents.

This issue will surely also be discussed in Barbados. Under pressure by law enforcement in Mexico, drug lords are shifting some of their drug-shipping business to the Caribbean. Central America is also a transit point for cocaine, and the issue is sure to come up in San Jose.

Immigration

"There will be strong negative reaction to the new immigration bill in all countries that President Clinton visits," Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Davidow told reporters last week.

Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are major sources of migrants, legal and illegal, to the United States. The Bureau of the Census reports that the U.S. population included 6.2 million people of Mexican birth, 718,000 of Salvadoran birth and 556,000 of Dominican birth in 1994.

A new immigration law took effect April 1, and many Latin and Caribbean governments had feared that it would lead to massive deportations of illegal immigrants from the United States.

That has not happened. But the law gives immigration officers the authority to refuse entry to a foreigner at the border or at airports without any right of appeal.

They also can deport illegal immigrants and prevent them from returning to the United States for several years even if they obtain proper documents in the meantime.

There is a fear that strict application of the law will break up families.

Economics

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