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Bush Departs for Latin America Trip - 2002-03-21

President Bush leaves Washington Thursday on a four-day trip to Mexico, Peru and El Salvador. He will be speaking out about his new policy on foreign aid.

The president will begin his trip to Latin America in Monterrey, Mexico where he will attend a U.N. conference on aid to developing countries.

Mr. Bush will address the meeting on Friday, and is expected to urge other nations to embrace his new foreign aid policy. He is asking congress for an extra ten billion dollars over the next three years to establish a new foreign aid fund, with annual donations of five billion dollars beginning in 2006. President Bush says the money will be used to provide grants to countries that implement economic and political reforms.

On the eve of his trip, White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice defended the president's approach. She said aid dollars alone can not lift a nation out of poverty. "We know that for countries with the rule of law, free markets, good health care and education, every dollar of development aid attracts two dollars of private capital," she pointed out. "And we know that trade and investment are the true engines of economic growth."

Mr. Bush will also hold private talks in Monterrey with the leaders of Mexico and Canada - partners with the United States in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Ms. Rice noted there is concern that the benefits of NAFTA have not reached all parts of Mexico, prompting poor Mexicans to illegally cross the U.S. border to seek work. "NAFTA created a tremendous economic boom in Mexico," she said. "But it is uneven. It is mostly along the border states and one of President's Fox's concerns has been to take that prosperity and transfer it to the center of the country and to the south."

She would not spell out specific new steps the United States might take to address the problem. But in a pre-trip interview with a group of journalists from Latin America, the president promised initiatives to ease the plight of would-be illegal immigrants.

Mr. Bush also told Peruvian radio that Andean trade will be the focus of his stop in Lima. He will arrive in Peru Saturday afternoon, and will meet privately with President Alejandro Toledo and then with a larger group of regional leaders.

There have been reports in Peru that President Bush might ask to base U.S. counter-terrorism operations near the Peruvian-Colombian border. Condoleezza Rice said no such request will be made. "The Peruvians have been involved in the general regional effort to do something about the drug trade of which Plan Colombia is a part," she added. "But in terms of counter-terrorism operations, no."

Mr. Bush's stay in Peru the first state visit by a sitting U.S. president will be relatively brief. By mid-day Sunday, he will be in El Salvador.

Once again, the focus will be on trade. Mr. Bush will consult in San Salvador with President Francisco Flores. Seven other Central American presidents will join them for a working lunch where the conversation will center on the Bush administration's intention to strike a free trade deal with the region.