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Western Hemisphere Leaders Begin Summit Meeting in Mexico - 2004-01-13

The leaders of 34 western hemisphere nations are in Monterrey, Mexico, for the Special Summit of the Americas, focusing on such issues as trade, immigration and the fight against corruption. The main line of conflict emerging at the summit is between the United States' push for free trade and the desire of some countries to tackle poverty in a more direct fashion.

In his remarks at the summit's opening session, U.S. President George Bush emphasized the benefits of free trade for the hemisphere. "Over the long term, trade is the most certain path to lasting prosperity," he said. "The openness of our market is the key driver of growth in the region and a testament to the United States' belief in the mutual benefits of trade."

To support his case, Mr. Bush said that last year, 83 percent of Latin America's exports to the United States entered duty free. He said this amounted to $176 billion worth of goods.

But some nations represented at the summit want to discuss a more aggressive approach to fighting poverty and strengthening democratic institutions. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose country proposed this summit, told the regional leaders that the needs of the poor must always be the main concern.

"We must maintain our commitment to the social safety net, knowing that a successful society depends on a healthy, well-educated population," he said. "For some of the countries here, that is not going to be easy. That is why the developed economies must recognize our responsibility to assist, both bilaterally and through the hemisphere's very important regional inter-governmental institutions."

Some nations, including Brazil and Venezuela, have questioned the timing of the U.S. push to a hemispheric free trade accord. But summit host, Mexican President Vicente Fox, urged them not to delay measures that could lead to future prosperity for their people.

He said regional nations should not wait until conditions are better before making important moves. He noted that the heroes of the hemisphere's history, like Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Miguel Hidalgo and Benito Juarez had not waited to take action. He said this is what made them great.

The summit is to end late Tuesday with a formal declaration of principles.