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USIS Washington File

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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