WASHINGTON — President Clinton told Central American leaders Friday that U.S. assistance is shifting from short-term emergency hurricane relief to a focus on long-term construction through liberalized trade, debt relief and other measures.
With four Central American presidents and one vice president standing nearby, Clinton said he will visit the region in early 1999, and he announced $17 million in additional food aid, bringing the total U.S. aid package since Hurricane Mitch to $300 million.
"Now, we are shifting our focus to reconstruction," he said. "Working with Congress on a bipartisan basis, our effort will include funds for rebuilding, debt relief and new financing, trade and investment initiatives and immigration relief."
The Central American leaders are here for talks with international financial institutions and other aid donors.
Clinton said the creditors for Honduras and Nicaragua, the two hardest-hit countries, have agreed to relieve them from debt service obligations until 2001.
"We are working with international institutions for new financing, and we will work with Congress to help these countries meet their loan obligations," he said.
At another point, he said in Spanish, "Ayudaremos a nuestros hermanos," and then translated himself: "We will help our brothers and sisters."
Clinton said he will press Congress for legislation that will give Central American and Caribbean countries the same tariff treatment that Mexico has under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Congress failed to approve such legislation this year.
Clinton also said he hopes Congress will approve investment treaties for Nicaragua and Honduras.
U.S. officials said the Central American leaders, during a White House meeting, asked that many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants from the region who do not have resident status in the United States be allowed to remain permanently in this country.
Under existing legislation, Nicaraguans have the best chance of receiving resident status. The Central Americans asked Clinton to ensure that all countries of the region be treated equally.
Honduran President Carlos Flores, who spoke for his counterparts after the White House meeting, warned of a potential exodus from the region if the people sense there is no hope of a normal life after the hurricane, which left more than 9,000 people dead across Central America.
"We do not wish to see repeated the unfortunate exodus that occurred in Central America in the past when the cruel consequences of war and internal political problems robbed thousands of the security of their jobs and opportunities in their own countries," Flores said.
After the hurricane, the administration halted deportations to Central America of undocumented immigrants until early January. Clinton said additional measures will be announced shortly.