29 September 1999
Romero Testifies on Key Issues Facing Americas
(Colombia, Haiti, Panama included in testimony) (860) By Eric Green USIA Staff Writer Washington -- Although the Western Hemisphere faces many challenges, the countries of the region have arrived at a "promising juncture," says Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric affairs, Peter Romero. Testifying September 29 before a congressional subcommittee, Romero said the United States has "excellent relations with our neighbors throughout the region." Geography, trade, travel, migration and technology have all combined "to produce an unprecedented level of integration and interdependence." But the problems facing the region, such as crime, migration and illicit drugs, Romero said, requires "active U.S. leadership and engagement." The key issues of Romero's wide-ranging testimony before the House International Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere Subcommittee included Colombia's peace process and U.S. efforts to help Bogota battle its illicit drug problem. In addition, he discussed the status of what is called "Forward Operating Locations" to monitor drug activity in the Americas, the possibility of U.S.-Cuba counter-narcotics cooperation, the Panama Canal and charges of Chinese influence over the waterway, the status of U.S. property claims in Nicaragua, the political situation in Venezuela, and elections and the status of U.S. and United Nations forces in Haiti. Asked to explain U.S. "benchmarks" for measuring its success in Colombia, Romero said the United States wants to see "greater integration" between the Colombian military, police and other forces to meet the growing anti-government guerrilla threat in the southern part of the country. The United States has been engaged in an anti-narcotic spraying campaign in that region, as well as in Peru and Bolivia, said Romero. But despite that, the cultivation of coca, used in the making of cocaine, has "mushroomed" in southern Colombia, Romero said. "Unfortunately, that has coincided with a very big guerrilla presence" in that area," he said. "So consequently, what we're looking for in that area ... is an effort to put a civilian presence on the ground." U.S. counter-narcotics interests in Colombia, he said, are "inextricably linked to the country's capacity to strengthen its democratic governance, jump-start the legitimate economy, undertake a genuine peace process and ensure respect for the basic human rights of the Colombia people." On Panama, Romero said an "unorthodox" bidding process ultimately resulted in a Hong Kong company winning the concession to operate ports at both ends of the Panama Canal. But the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the presence of the winning bidder, Hutchison-Whampoa, at the ports of Balboa and Cristobal does not represent a threat to Canal operations or other U.S. interests in Panama. Romero said the provisions of the "Neutrality Treaty," signed by the United States and Panama in 1977, establish a "legal framework" to ensure security of the Canal and to guarantee that it remains open to ships of all nations on an equal footing. Nothing in the arrangement between Panama and Hutchison-Whampoa "modifies or supersedes the provisions" of that treaty, he said. Regarding the FOLs, Romero said U.S. counter-narcotics aircraft have been operating out of airports in Curacao and Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles, and in Manta, Ecuador, since last April to replace the closing of Howard Air Force Base in Panama. The United States, he said, is now in the final rounds of negotiations for long-term FOL agreements with those nations, lasting more than 10 years, which he said will enable the United States to position more aircraft at each location to ensure full coverage of the drug-trafficking transit and source zones once covered out of Panama. Regarding the resolution of U.S. citizens' claims for property confiscated during the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the 1980s, Romero said 2,564 cases have been resolved, while 894 cases remained unresolved. "Solid progress" has been made on this issue, Romero said, "but we must maintain constructive pressure" on Nicaragua. "Americans have been patient in seeking resolution and deserve a fair shake." Romero said that "with perseverance and insistence, I believe we can eventually find acceptable resolutions to all outstanding property claims." On possible U.S.-Cuba counter-narcotics cooperation, Romero said Cuba's Caribbean location between the major drug-producing countries of South America and the United States "means we have to consider Cuba" in designing a counter-drug strategy. Romero emphasized, however, that any possible counter-narcotics cooperation with Cuba "will not come at the expense of our overall policy towards Cuba and does not signify a normalization of relations" with the communist government of Fidel Castro. Finally, on Haiti, Romero said that although political and economic progress has been stalled, Washington remains committed to helping the country achieve "sustainable democracy and a level of economic growth that will lift the Haitian people out of abject poverty." Romero said Washington is "redeploying" its military support group from Haiti, but this "does not constitute the termination of our military presence" in the Caribbean nation. "We will continue to be engaged militarily and are currently reviewing proposed programs for the area," Romero said. "Furthermore, this redeployment does not in any way indicate a retreat by the U.S. from helping Haiti develop its economy and strengthen its nascent democratic institutions."
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