Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials
The Briefing Room
12:08 P.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I want to emphasize a few things about this brunch. One, those of you who have followed Central America over the years will notice from the tone of the discussion at the briefing the dramatic change both in atmosphere as well as in substance.
In the 1980s, there would have been a lot of tension, a great deal of talk about violence, human rights violations. There would have been a tremendous polarization in the United States with regard to Central America. Completely different agenda now in the 1990s -- positive themes of trade, growth and the deepening of democracy. Also, the possibility that all of Central America -- all seven leaders -- could be here at one time in the White House, all democratic is also something unimaginable just a few years ago.
This was a very clear sign -- the holding of the meeting itself and the tenor of the meeting was a very clear sign that the United States plans to remain very engaged in the region, very engaged in Central America, but with a different agenda and with different instruments and different attitudes than in the past.
The emphasis on trade, trade and growth. President Clinton said, and that this occurs right after the NAFTA passage in the United States is very important. The idea is to build on the NAFTA, as President Clinton said at the lunch -- at the brunch -- we have an historic opportunity now to build an economic and political partnership with Central and Latin America into the 21st century.
Our economic development strategy for sustainable democratic development in the region will be based in a more balanced way, will maintain some bilateral programs, but with much greater emphasis on self-sustaining growth through trade expansion and through economic reform tied to multilateral development assistance; what we think is a more mature and self-sustainable approach to economic development.
And then, finally, you'll notice that in his statement, President De Leon emphasized the importance of good governance. There's a progression from human rights protection to elections and democracy to, then, finally, the perfection of democratic institutions so that democracy functions. The Central Americans are very concerned about that, and President Clinton indicated his interest in helping Central Americans in the good governance area.
We'll take your questions.
Q: President De Leon, in his remarks, indicated that President Clinton was ready to move quickly on extending NAFTA southward. President Clinton said a study is needed after January 1st. Who is right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Keep in mind that we're talking about a major historical development, so it seems to me to refer to a study which will begin immediately in the new year and that we will move quickly to make our fundamental decisions with regard to the shape of freer trade in the hemisphere, the timing, the criteria by which countries would join in, progressive trade expansion in the hemisphere, to say all that will occur early in the new year it seems to me is fully consistent with President De Leon's interest in moving rapidly on this issue.
Q: Can you be more specific in the timetables?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just add one point here. I think we ought to be a little careful not to move too quickly before the Canadians actually complete their process. And the President of the United States is very conscious of that. And what Richard has said is absolutely correct; we are now going to sit down and try to figure out, led by Mickey Kantor, how we move forward as rapidly as possible. The President asked Mickey to do this very quickly in expanding the NAFTA concept beyond Mexico and Canada and to other countries, whether it's through expansion of NAFTA or separate agreements is not entirely clear.
The other point, though, is that the President has asked us to continue -- we've already been doing this -- to look very, very carefully at what we can do in the short run to help the Central American countries and the Caribbean countries, all members of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, to not be disadvantaged by NAFTA, particularly in the apparel sector. And I would expect that we'd be seeing something fairly soon, probably very early next year, on that.
Q: Two questions for Nicaragua, please. Can you clarify the amount of aid that's being released now by President Clinton's order, and the second thing is that there were reports -- I don't whether they're -- or not, that the Sandinistas were demanding that an amnesty be sort of enacted so that any member of the Sandinista Army will not be subject to any kind of prosecution as a result of the negotiations with the UNO and the FSLN. Should any amnesty be enacted, would this in any way change the view from the United States?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The assistance to which the President was specifically referring is $40 million in economic support funds from Fiscal Year 93, which has been held up for the last several months. And he's decided that there has been sufficient progress on many of the issues of deepest concern to us in Nicaragua to move forward with that. But it's important to understand that this is going to be carefully coordinated with the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank in a coordinated effort to help the Nicaraguan economy stay afloat, but at the same time, needed to encourage reforms -- both economic and political reforms in Nicaragua.
The question of the amnesty -- there already is an amnesty law that covers certain kinds of crime in Managua. I'm not sure whether -- to what you're precisely referring. I understand that sometimes some of the Sandinista leaders are looking for special amnesties. But that should not affect our decisions, that's up to the Nicaraguans.
Q: Just a clarification of something that you just said. In the short term, the announcement that we expect soon -- would that be like a parity to the Caribbean Basin Initiative to the benefits of NAFTA? Is that what we're talking about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to speculate too much on what it might be. But it probably would not be complete parity because there is conditionality in NAFTA which Mexico and Canada and we, ourselves, have subjected ourselves to. So it wouldn't be fair to give all the benefits without some of the consequences to others. But there is a question of moving very quickly, particularly on the apparel sector, to provide some support for the CBI countries.
Q: What kind of support would you be giving the apparel sector in the short term? What kind of protection?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We still -- Ambassador Kantor still has to look at -- consult with the Congress, consult with the private sector before we decide in greater detail -- and also, of course, ultimately to talk to the Caribbean Basin countries before we decide in any detail exactly what the agreement might look like. It would not be a direct replica of the so-called Gibbons bill, however, because one of the differences is that the Gibbons bill does not, as it's stated in the first three years, does not involve reciprocity. And a very important principle of our trade policy with Latin America and more generally is reciprocity. We want to open markets to American products in our -- through our trade agreements.
Q: Any reference to Cuba on the embargo on the relationship of those countries?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Interestingly enough, the word Cuba was never -- never came up during the brunch.
Q: How about Haiti?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we did not discuss Haiti, either.
Q: The President had great difficulty with Congress at the beginning regarding NAFTA. What are the perspectives of the Central American countries joining since there are so many different countries with different demands?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First, there are not clear decisions yet made as to exactly what form the greater trade liberalization would take in the region. So it is premature to talk about joining NAFTA as such.
One thing I think we did see in the debate here over this last year, though, is how persuasive the President and the Vice President can be when they really put their shoulders to it. And I think there should be no doubt that both the President and the Vice President are extremely engaged in Latin America, have a deep, personal, intense interest in the region, and very much see a major opportunity for American foreign policy with the NAFTA as the foundation to move forward to both fortified democracy and increased economic linkages throughout the region. And this is the reason why the Vice President is going down to Mexico tomorrow.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Today.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Today, yes. And tomorrow will give a major speech on Latin American relations. You can see a sequence -- passage of NAFTA, meeting with the Central American heads of state, Vice President goes to Mexico to deliver a major address in hemispheric relations.
Q: Would there be any chance that there would be like a Latin American program, like in the past there have been Alliance for Progress, and then the Caribbean Initiative -- every president has had some kind of a general program. Is there going to be one for Latin America?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let's leave a few surprises for next year, okay?
Q: Could you clarify something? After the NAFTA vote when the President spoke in the White House that evening, actually he was quite explicit about now extending NAFTA to AFTA, right down to the Antarctica. I don't hear that same explicit commitment coming out of you today. Are you being vague on this because the Canadians have not acted and you don't want to appear to be doing something in anticipation of that, or because there is some substantive walking back now on that commitment? Because that's certainly the image you're projecting.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, Tom. What the President said right after the NAFTA was he wanted to extend the idea of freer trade to reform-oriented democratic countries in the Western Hemisphere, and that very much remains what we're talking about in our current policy. What we've got to look at is the exact modalities under which that occurs -- exactly what are the negotiating forms under which that occurs. We have to look at the exact timetable, and that of course, very much depends upon Congress and the political atmosphere. And then also, we have to look at the exact eligibility criteria. He said reform-minded, and of course, democratic countries where reform-minded has to be specified. Exactly what sort of reforms countries have to have completed, or be committed to in order to engage in freer trade agreements with the United States and other countries.
Q: Okay, I just want to clarify, if I could follow up, for one thing. The message today I hear is fine print, then, that we're now reading the fine print in this overall commitment of the President, and it sounds to me like the fine print is, slow down here.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I wouldn't see it that way at all. I think this is an historical process. I mean, how long did it take to negotiate the NAFTA? Years. It took years to negotiate that agreement, even before we got into the side agreements. And the countries of Latin America understand that we are talking about a very fundamental historical process. So I would not say that this is a sign of slowing down at all.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, by no means. And he reiterated to the Central Americans this morning that he wanted to move as quickly as possible. But as he also said in his remarks out here, there are things that the other countries have to do as well -- intellectual property and other areas. This all has to be defined a little bit more clearly. And that's the process we're in now. But it is no indication that I've seen from him of any slowing down the process. But it's just a complicated process which will take some time.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If I -- I might suggest the Vice President's speech in Mexico tomorrow will further amplify on some of these points.
Q: First of all, when you talked about parity for the Caribbean Basin countries, am I to understand, then, that you're requiring this -- there will be something required in return for them to have some kind of parity with the --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's correct. It will be -- again, the details of all this have to be worked out. But there will be reciprocity expected. And, let me point out, the Central Americans fully understand that and expect it.
Q: Okay. The second question. Chile has received a commitment from President Clinton to be next in line for adherence to a NAFTA, if it is granted to a Latin American country. Does that still hold?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Careful. The commitment is to a free trade agreement with Chile. Whether or not that free trade agreement is a free-standing agreement, whether or not it means accession to the NAFTA, that has yet to be discussed. And, of course, the exact timetable also has yet to be discussed.
Q: The third question, if I could really quickly --the aid to Nicaragua -- wasn't the suspended aid about $50 million? Why is only $40 million being released?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the amount of money that I think is in the pot is the $40 million.
Q: What happened to the other $10 million?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That I don't know. But he's been talking about $40 million for quite a while.
Q: What does the administration think of the electoral process of Mexico in view of the fact that it has a new candidate from -- in view of the fact that the United States wanted somebody that would be favorable to the United States?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We certainly respect Mexico's internal -- we respect Mexico's right to choose its own leader and we would not comment on the particular choice.
Q: The American president said that they were going to talk about drugs, too, and they were interested in some kind of an aid to help them fight this problem. Did the issue come up at all? And what was the response of the President if it did?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The emphasis on the foreign assistance side was really more on the area of two issues, or three, I would say: fighting poverty -- and President De Leon really underscored the importance of fighting poverty and the social agenda in the region, which I think is reasonable to say it was much neglected during the 1980s both in terms of the region's inability to grapple with it because of all of the political problems. The second emphasis was on sustainable development, which is, on the one hand, that is the central theme of the Clinton administration's new approach to bilateral foreign assistance. But let me point out that it was the Central Americans themselves that underscored that they wanted, themselves, wanted to pursue a sustainable development strategy, and we responded, yes, we very much want to help you do that.
And then the third major issue in the aid area was the issue of good governance -- the need to strengthen the judiciaries, civil service reform, improvement in the whole electoral machinery -- all of those and many other issues, to make government work so that people believe in the government. If people don't believe in the government, democracy will not be sustained over a long period of time. The legitimacy of democratic institutions was very much on the table, and President Clinton said we want to help you in these areas, and we very much hope that the Central Americans come back to us. We already have programs in those areas, but we look forward to the Central Americans coming back to us with suggestions as to how to work together on that critical issue for the '90s.
Thank you very much.
END12:23 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/272314