Bush pushes hemispheric free trade, blasts Castro

DALLAS - George W. Bush pledged on Friday to breathe new life into stalled free-trade negotiations with Latin America if elected president, and to retain all current sanctions on Fidel Castro's Cuba.

''My word to you, Mr. Castro: Let your people live in freedom,'' the Texas governor and GOP presidential nominee said in a speech in Miami outlining his foreign policy goals for the Western Hemisphere.

Bush reiterated his proposal to hire more border enforcement officers. ''With expanded patrols, we can make our borders something more than lines on a map,'' he said, hours before meeting with Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox at the University of Texas in Dallas.

Fox has stirred controversy with his proposal for more open borders with the United States. He met on Thursday at the White House separately with President Clinton and with Vice President Al Gore.

In their hour-long meeting, Bush said he made it very clear to Fox ''that we will enforce the borders as long as I'm governor and if I'm the president, but in a humane way.''

''I don't know whether it will work or not, but I appreciate his optimistic vision,'' Bush added of the open-border proposal, saying it is important to boost Mexico's wages first. ''When the wage differential narrows, then perhaps it is a strategy we can explore jointly.''

Fox said he hoped that Mexico under his leadership will be ''a much better friend and partner'' with both the United States and Canada.

''We can build up a common future together,'' Fox said.

Bush congratulated Fox on ''a historic victory'' in winning the presidency in July from the party that has run Mexico for more than 70 years. His election sends ''a strong signal of reform and modernization in Mexico,'' the Texas governor said. Fox takes office in December.

''Mr. Fox did a good job in broadening the reach of his party, he challenged the status quo,'' Bush said. ''I feel like I'm running against the same thing, I must challenge the status quo.''

In Florida, Bush told an invitation-only crowd of 500 business and community leaders that, if elected, he would hold a preinaugural meeting with Fox in November ''to keep Mexican-American relations moving forward.''

Both Clinton and Democrat Gore, Bush's presidential rival, also have voiced reservations about Fox's open-border proposal.

In his speech at Florida International University, Bush said one of his first acts as president would be to try to persuade Congress to re-enact so-called fast-track authority.

That would enable his administration to resume suspended free-trade talks with Chile and other Latin American nations, Bush said.

This authority - the ability to negotiate trade agreements that Congress can only pass or reject, not amend - expired in 1997. Clinton failed to persuade the GOP-led Congress to renew it.

It is difficult for a president to negotiate free-trade agreements without this authority. ''Other nations are unwilling to negotiate with us seriously,'' Bush said. Gore also wants Congress to give him the negotiating authority if he becomes president.

''When the next president sits at the Americas Summit in Quebec next April, other nations must know that fast-track trade authority is on the way,'' Bush said.

Strong opposition by organized labor to an extension of fast-track has made it difficult for the administration to rally support among Democrats.

Meantime, Canada and European nations have forged free-trade pacts with Latin American nations, Bush noted. ''We dropped the ball, and they're running with it. But we must get back into the game.''

The United States already has free trade with Mexico and Canada as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Bush proposes extending this zone throughout the hemisphere, excluding Cuba.

''The leadership of Cuba has not even begun the journey'' toward democracy, Bush said.

''So I challenge the Castro regime to surprise the world and adopt the ways of democracy. Until it frees political prisoners, and holds free elections and allows free speech, I will keep the sanctions in place,'' Bush said.

Gore campaign aide Kym Spell criticized the speech, saying, ''Bush did not explain his ineffective dealings with Mexico,'' the only nation with which he has direct foreign-policy experience.

''Many of his goals for Latin America have already been addressed by the current administration,'' Spell added.

Bush suggested he would pay more attention to Latin America than the Clinton-Gore administration.

''Should I become president, I will look South, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency,'' he said. ''Just as we ended the great divide between East and West, so today we can overcome the North-South divide.''

Bush proposed spending $100 million to underwrite loans to small businesses in Latin America and to establish an exchange program to offer young men and women from those countries temporary jobs in the U.S. government.


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