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World - Americas

Clinton says U.S. did wrong in Central American wars

March 10, 1999
Web posted at: 11:38 p.m. EST (0438 GMT)

In this story:

Protests delay departure from airport

Illegal immigration remains contentious

Clinton promises immigration parity

Presidents to press for more trade, aid


GUATEMALA CITY (CNN) -- Facing anti-U.S. protests over deportations, President Clinton admitted Wednesday to Guatemalans that U.S. support for "widespread repression" in their bloody 36-year civil war was a mistake.

"For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that the support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression ... was wrong," Clinton said as he began a round-table discussion on Guatemala's search for peace.

"The United States must not repeat that mistake. We must and we will instead continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala," he said on the third day of a Central American tour.

As Clinton spoke, several hundred demonstrators outside Guatemala City's National Palace could be heard accusing the United States of complicity in the war, in which 200,000 people died, mainly Mayan civilian peasants.

A Guatemalan truth commission last month told of state-sponsored genocide and massacres in one of the harshest rebukes of the horrors of the conflict between the army and leftist insurgents, which ended in 1996.

The commission also said U.S. military aid and Central Intelligence Agency advisers played a pivotal role in the bloodshed.

Protests delay president's arrival

Clinton, the first post-Cold War U.S. leader to visit Central America since it moved away from the civil wars of the 1980s and toward democracy, was kept waiting on the tarmac for 30 minutes after arriving because of the protests.

White House officials said the Secret Service wanted to make sure things were "under control" before Clinton set off in his convoy of armor-plated limousines for an official welcoming ceremony.

As heavily armed riot police and troops watched over the demonstration outside the National Palace, Clinton faced a controversy over a U.S. decision to resume deporting Guatemalan and Salvadoran illegal immigrants 4 1/2 months after Hurricane Mitch devastated the region.

Clinton is in the midst of a four-day tour of Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the four countries hit hardest by Mitch, which killed at least 9,000 people, left millions homeless and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Illegal immigration remains contentious

Before leaving El Salvador for Guatemala earlier Wednesday, Clinton said in a speech to the Legislative Assembly there that most illegal immigrants sneaking into the United States were just looking for a dignified life.

"Nevertheless, we must continue to discourage illegal immigration, for it undermines control of our borders ... and even more punishes hard-working people who play by the rules and who wait for their turn to come to the United States.

"Therefore we must enforce our laws, but we will do so with justice and fairness," he said.

As in El Salvador, Clinton heard appeals in Guatemala to continue a hurricane-related amnesty for illegal immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador.

Doris Meissner, head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said there was no chance the United States would suspend the deportations again.

Deportations are expected to resume next week, she said. They will not be mass deportations, and the numbers are relatively small, she said, with fewer than 1,000 immigrants facing expulsion.

Salvadoran and Guatemalan officials also expressed their displeasure on a separate immigration issue -- U.S. laws that favor Nicaraguans over their countries' citizens.

The immigration issue is a sore point for the two countries, which benefit from money sent home by emigrants. Overall, Guatemala's and El Salvador's economies benefit from $700 million and $1.2 billion, respectively, in annual remittances from their citizens in the United States.

They also think the deportees will add to already severe unemployment.

"We have had a lot of support from President Clinton for our efforts to end the civil war and our fight against drug trafficking," Guatemalan Foreign Minister Eduardo Stein Barias said. "But the planes carrying the deportees will be arriving almost in the wake of Clinton's plane."

Clinton promises immigration parity

On the U.S. law favoring Nicaraguans, Clinton pledged to try to offer equal treatment to all Central American countries but said full parity would be possible only if the U.S. Congress rewrote the law.

"The present American law is completely unfair," Clinton said. "It is a vestige of our ... Cold War mentality, and how we were involved here."

The disparity goes back to the time when previous U.S. administrations were willing to provide a safe harbor for refugees fleeing leftist regimes in Nicaragua and Cuba but not to those seeking respite from right-wing military dictatorships allied to the United States.

However, Clinton's proposal to equalize immigration policy for the whole region drew a cool response on Capitol Hill.

"The fact that the administration is even considering giving what amounts to an amnesty to a half-million people in the United States is incredible," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House immigration subcommittee.

Presidents to press for more trade, aid

While there has been lots of good will during Clinton's visit to the region this week, Central American presidents have questioned how much substance there has been to date.

The region's leaders are disappointed by congressional failure to approve hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and to grant freer access to U.S. markets. They are expected to press their cases during a summit with Clinton on Thursday.

Clinton asked Congress for $956 million for reconstruction after Mitch, which caused billions of dollars in damage in October and November.

He has also asked Congress for enhanced, though limited, trade benefits, under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, for Central American and Caribbean nations trying to rebuild agriculture, industry and jobs after last fall's storms.

Central American leaders complain that the trade measures are insufficient to restore jobs. Clinton comes to Central America "without a solution to the problems of economic integration of the region," Stein Barias said.

White House Correspondent Chris Black and Reuters contributed to this report.

Clinton looks forward, not back, on Central America tour
March 10, 1999
Clinton praises U.S. military aid role in
March 9, 1999
Clinton to announce reconstruction aid in Honduras
March 9, 1999
Clinton pledges aid to hurricane-ravaged Nicaragua
March 8, 1999
Clinton bound for Central America to view Mitch's wrath
March 7, 1999
Nicaragua gets sustainable forestry investment
January 19, 1999

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