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Free Trade, Corruption May Top Agenda at Summit of the Americas - 2004-01-12

Leaders of some 20 western hemisphere nations have arrived in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey for a special summit of the Americas, which will take place there Monday and Tuesday. President Bush is to arrive Monday. Officials meeting in advance of the summit opening have encountered some areas of disagreement in preparing a draft statement.

U.S. officials want to use this special summit to talk about free trade and efforts to stop corruption in the region. President Bush is also expected to speak more about his new immigration reform proposals. But some regional leaders want to focus on the fight against poverty and leave free trade discussions for another time and place.

Many of the Latin American leaders also want the United States to end its agricultural subsidies, something the Bush administration is not likely to do. The Latin Americans are also opposed to U.S. proposals aimed at isolating corrupt governments in the region. So far, officials meeting here to write a draft statement for the summit have failed to resolve these differences.

Friction between the United States and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez could also provide a rhetorical conflict at the summit. The United States has criticized Mr. Chavez for his close ties to Cuban President Fidel Castro. Chavez opponents in Venezuela say he is trying to establish a Cuba-style communist system there. For his part, Mr. Chavez has warned U.S. officials to keep out of his nation's affairs.

President Bush is likely to receive a warm welcome from the summit's host, Mexican President Vicente Fox, who says he would like to use the occasion to strengthen the North American Free Trade Agreement that unites his country commercially with the United States and Canada. He says he would like to promote measures to strengthen the trade alliance against competition from China and other Asian nations. Mexico has lost tens of thousands of jobs to Asian nations in the past few years.

Mr. Fox would also like to discuss the immigration issue with President Bush. He says he is encouraged by the proposal, but that he would like it to go even further towards an open system in which Mexican workers could move freely across borders to jobs in the United States and Canada.

The immigration issue is important to Mexico because the nation of 100 million people has not been able to provide sufficient work for its growing population. Remittances from Mexican workers in the United States amount to around $12 billion a year, second only to oil as a source of foreign revenue for Mexico. Central American nations are also interested in the Bush proposal, which would provide temporary legal status to an estimated eight million laborers who currently reside illegally in the United States. South American nations, however, have less interest in the issue since the number of immigrants from that continent is small in comparison to Mexico and Central America.