For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 11, 2007
Press Gaggle by Dan Fisk and Tom Shannon
United States Embassy
And aboard Air Force One
En route Guatemala City, Guatemala
President's Trip to Latin America
Dan Fisk, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Tom Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
5:53 P.M. (Local)
MR. SNOW: On the record briefing. Unfortunately, time is going to be short, we'll try to catch up with you on the plane, as well.
MR. FISK: As you all know, the President is finishing his third country stop, Colombia. He is the first American President to visit Bogotá since 1982, when President Ronald Reagan visited the country. President Bush '41 and President Clinton also visited Cartagena, as did this President earlier in this administration. But, again, this is the first visit to Bogotá since '82.
It comes at a good time. Colombians are in the process of discussing their consolidation phase of their democratic security plan, known as Plan Colombia. Also gave the Presidents an opportunity to talk about the way ahead on the free trade agreement, which the two countries signed, but we have not formally submitted it to the Congress yet.
The two leaders reviewed the progress that Colombia has made under Plan Colombia. They also reviewed the elements of the consolidation phase of the plan. One of the key points of the conversation went to the importance of bringing to justice all those who violate human rights. The Presidents agreed that impunity must end, that the investigation and prosecutions must proceed no matter where they lead, and that cases must be pursued as well. This is not just a matter of human rights cases from this point forward, but it's a matter of dealing with all the cases out there.
President Bush reaffirmed our commitment to the free trade agreement and noted for President Uribe the importance of the Colombians helping explain to the American people the resources and the effort that they are making to deal with narco violence, and the positive side of the agenda, as well, in terms of social development, economic development; and, again, going to the fundamental commitment that Colombia is making over the next six years, where they've committed a total of $43 billion to pursue not only success in the war against the narco guerillas, but also a stronger administration of justice, economic opportunity and social development programs.
The two Presidents discussed the hostages, and one of the essential elements that they talked about was the importance of our two governments working together for the hostages' safe return. Both affirmed our governments' commitment to coordinate and take no action to put the hostages at risk. I think the way I would sum up the meeting and the importance of this visit is Colombia is a strategic partner; it's based on a shared commitment to democracy, social justice for all and justice for those victimized by violence.
MR. SHANNON: That's it. We'll just take any of your questions.
Q The families are really concerned that there might be some precipitous military action to try to free the hostages. Was that pulled off the table?
MR. FISK: As I said earlier, the two Presidents expressed their -- one, their personal concern for the situation of the families. They understand that it's very tough for them and we cannot lose the human dimension of this. We also realize that you're looking at not just three Americans, but also a number of Colombians. And the key element for both Presidents is two governments working together in a coordinated fashion to make sure that everything is done for the hostages' safe return.
Q But when you say that you don't want to put them at risk, are you ruling out a military option?
MR. FISK: We're not going to get into the hypotheticals. I just want to make sure that the message is there that the two Presidents have given direction to their governments to make sure we work together, that we have the best information we can, that we make sure that if we do have something that we act on it -- and will depend on what the situation is.
But, again, the bottom line is that we want to make sure they are safely returned.
Q Can you talk about the outlook for the free trade agreement? Is it getting pretty bleak with current -- (inaudible) -- with Congress? Did that come up?
MR. FISK: The free trade agreement came up. Both Presidents, again, are committed to getting it approved -- in both Congresses, I might add; the Colombian Congress has to act, as well. But one of the key elements of this is that the Colombians need to also come to the United States and they need to explain to our Congress what they're doing and the importance of this for them. We are going to do our heavy lifting. The President is committed to that. But this, again, is going to be something in which the two countries need to work together.
MR. SNOW: In addition, the President has talked this over with House and Senate leaders, as well, in the bicameral, bipartisan leadership meeting. So, you know, we continue to discuss it with the House and Senate leaders and we've had good discussions so far.
Q A factual question: It has to be submitted by March 31st to Congress?
MR. FISK: We'll have to get you an answer on that.
MR. SNOW: You're talking about trade promotion authority or --
Q That's in July.
MR. SNOW: Exactly.
Q The Colombian thing -- I thought it had to be submitted by March 31st.
MR. FISK: I can't answer, I'm not aware that it had to be submitted by March 31st -- first time I've heard of a deadline.
Q Will it be held back until the Colombians go to Congress and make their pitch?
MR. FISK: We are still looking at our strategy. Ambassador Schwab, as you all know, has been in discussions with the Democratic leadership in the Congress. We want to make sure that everyone understands our commitment to getting the free trade agreement done. And, again, we've got to understand where the votes are, as the President would say, and that's what people are focused on.
MR. SNOW: The other thing is, this is an issue not only of economic importance, but geopolitical and geo-strategic importance, and that forms part of the conversation the President is having with members on the Hill, as well.
Q Ninety percent of the powdered cocaine still comes from this country. It seemed like President Uribe was trying to make his case of all that he's doing pretty extensively in that press conference. Did he do that privately, as well?
MR. FISK: President Uribe reviewed for the President the progress that has been made under the first phase, or first part of Plan Colombia, in terms of establishing governmental authority throughout the country, or much of the country. Part of that is also making sure that social services are provided, what's been done in terms of education and economic opportunity. So he did present the President with an overview of what he's put -- what Colombia has put in place during his tenure.
MR. SNOW: In addition, also, pretty extensive readout on eradication efforts, too.
6:00 P.M. (Local)
* * * * *
8:04 P.M. (Local)
MR. SNOW: If you've got any questions, we're going to finish what we started -- and if you don't, you can finish seeing the movie.
Q I don't have anything --
MR. SNOW: I just wanted to make sure; I told you we'd come back.
Q Dan, what do you see as the highlight tomorrow in Guatemala, in terms of free trade? I know there are other parts of the agenda, but it's partly to celebrate CAFTA, isn't it?
MR. FISK: The highlight for tomorrow, first, the President in the morning goes out to a state of Guatemala known as Chimaltenango, it's a predominantly indigenous area. And he's going to visit a place called Santa Cruz Balanya, which is, again, majority population is what's called Kaqchikel-speaking Maya. There he's going to do a CAFTA event. He's going to visit a U.S. military medical readiness exercise, and part of this is to showcase what we as a country are doing to help people in the areas of health, education opportunities and job creation. And there will also be a cultural event at, again, a Maya ruin, Iximch . This is the site where Guatemala got it's name. So that's the morning events, and then he'll have the bilateral meetings with President Berger and his government tomorrow afternoon.
One of the key points here is to talk about what we're doing cooperatively, in terms of economic development, again, CAFTA. An issue of counter-narcotics is going to be an issue, counter-narcotics cooperation. Also just the overall security situation in Guatemala. As you all probably know, there were recent killings of three Salvadoran Central American parliamentarians, and there is the implication that's going relatively high up into the Guatemalan police. So one of the issues that will be discussed, will talk about crime and security issues. Security is the number one issue of interest to the average Guatemalan, so we expect to cover that.
Another issue of interest to the Guatemalans is immigration. So that is one in which they will be interested in where we are on comprehensive immigration reform.
Q -- address immigration problems? I mean, it's a Mexican problem as much as a U.S. problem.
MR. SNOW: A tenth of their population has immigrated to the U.S.
Q They have to go through Mexico to get to the U.S.
MR. FISK: You do have a -- Mexico has its own southern border issue with Central America, whether it's, in this case, Guatemalans, Salvadorans or Hondurans, which are the three largest groups that do migrate north.
Q Is that a question on the table for Mexico, with Calderon?
MR. FISK: Immigration will be an issue --
Q -- Mexico's southern border, will that be --
MR. FISK: I expect that to come up, because Calderon and the Mexicans have had an interest in that. But to what extent it comes up, or what percentage it is of the overall immigration discussion, I don't want to speculate.
Q Are you moving more to an immigration-oriented phase of this trip in Guatemala and then Mexico -- it will be a key issue, right?
MR. FISK: Well, immigration is a key issue in both those countries, Guatemala and Mexico. But, also, as you noticed, it came up in Brazil and Colombia. So for many countries in the Western Hemisphere what we've seen over the last five to seven years is immigration as a topic of bilateral discussions, as it's gone up on the agenda.
MR. SNOW: Keep in mind you're also still going to have humanitarian events, you're going to have free trade events -- really, it's a little bit misleading to think we're making a turn from one topic to another. Obviously, we're getting closer to the U.S. border with Mexico, but all of these issues really do appear in each and every one of the meetings we're having.
Q What's the President's assessment overall as the tour goes on? Is this working? Are people responding to his message of America as wanting to help South America and Central America?
MR. FISK: I think overall the message that we've been receiving, or the way the message has been received has been positive. I mean, again, here you go back to the United States and Brazil, the two largest democracies in the hemisphere pursuing a strategic alliance on biofuels, alternative energy. In the case of Uruguay you have a country with a strong democratic tradition, itself, and the two Presidents get along very well on a personal level, had a good set of conversations. Clearly, today, the strategic relationship we have with the Colombians and the importance of that to our security and our wellbeing and how we help the Colombians be ultimately successful in what they want to achieve, in terms of their own democratic security policies.
So I think, overall, it's been a good trip so far and been well received, and people understand that this is about the United States wanting to convey that we have an agenda that goes to addressing their concerns as average citizens -- what are the issues of interest to the individual on a daily basis? And it's very simple. It doesn't differ from country to country, it's basically what does my children's education look like, what about health care, what are my opportunities, what is my future. And to a certain extent, that's what the themes are and, like I said, that's been well received. By the way, so far all the countries have been very, very appreciative of the President's visit.
Q Are the demonstrations, street demonstrations you've seen in all these countries about what you expected? More or less?
MR. FISK: I'm not going to get into the demonstrations. I think for us -- to me, the important issue is with the hemisphere and its evolution over the last 25 years, is that you have people who can freely express themselves, they're not fearful; you've got a vigorous press -- not just on this airplane -- (laughter) -- but in the region. You've got people who can voice dissent and then go home at night, and there is going to be no knock on the door, there is no military government, there is no authoritarian government to the left that somehow now is going to penalize them, the fact that they want to dissent from the fact that President Bush visited.
So on that front, I mean, we're respectful of the fact that there is going to be dissent. But also I think what you've seen is generally an outpouring that's been positive -- we're glad the President is here and we appreciate the message he brings.
Q Is there any concern that Chavez continues to tag along on general neighborhood, moving to the final second half of this trip.
MR. FISK: If I can say, I think what I've seen is Chavez seems to be tagging along with you all, more than with us. So to a certain extent -- like I said, this isn't about Chavez.
MR. SNOW: I mean, it's the narrative you guys are bringing. There is an active agenda on these meetings and it's worth covering, because the United States is making an active difference in these and has been for -- it's been the leading voice for democracy in the region. You've got ongoing and aggressive efforts on trade, on human rights, on cultural exchange. You've got a President who at every stop makes the point that the success of these countries is good for the United States. So that's the narrative we're bringing. We didn't pack anybody else in our luggage.
MR. FISK: Can I just make a comment off -- I want to go off the record on this one.
* * * * *
MR. FISK: This is a data point -- in a way we've looked at this trip is last year we had a unique circumstance in the hemisphere where you had almost half the countries go through elections. We decided it was better not to travel during the course of the year, beyond the trip that we did to Mexico, because, one, we didn't to become an issue, we wanted these countries to go through and have their democratic exercises.
But what we did do is, it did have a pretty vigorous outreach. The President had 19 bilateral meetings with Western Hemisphere leaders and one trilateral meeting with then-President Fox and Prime Minister Harper. He made 40 phone calls during the course of the calendar year to counterparts. So, I mean, it was a pretty vigorous set of interaction, but it was based from Washington.
We thought this trip was a logical extension of, one, not only the President's personal interest and commitment to the hemisphere, but this engagement that he had been doing throughout 2006. So in that way for us this is just another way to illustrate the President's interest, and there's nothing more dramatic, frankly, than visiting the region.
Q The events tomorrow morning, are they more a celebration of CAFTA, because that's already been in effect now for a few years or so?
MR. FISK: Well, it hasn't been. CAFTA went into effect in Guatemala in -- I want to say March 1, 2006.
Q That recent?
MR. FISK: That recent. Yes, it went into effect January 1, 2006, but then countries have continued to come on board. For instance, the Dominican Republic just came on board this past March, 12 days ago. So as these countries have come on board with CAFTA -- so it's really just getting wrapped up in a lot of ways.
But what we wanted to show with Guatemala is a unique circumstance. Guatemala is a country of about 12 million people, half of whom are indigenous. So here you do have a country which has demographic challenges, over 40 percent are under 16 years of age and under, so it's a young population. There is something like 23 Mayan dialects, so some of these people do not even have Spanish as a first language, let alone the idea of learning a third language, English.
And what we want to do was to talk about a country that has this kind of diversity, this diverse culture and ethnic and linguistic elements to it -- and here's a case where it's democratic, it's committed to the free market, it has a free trade relationship with us. And that relationship is benefiting Guatemalan society at all levels. It's not simply that it's Spanish-speaking elite in the capital, but it goes beyond that. But also that it involves more than trade. It involves what we do as a nation on a humanitarian basis, and that's one reason we're going to a medical exercise, and something we do regularly and have done regularly in Guatemala. So, again, that's another element of this.
END 8:18 P.M. (Local)