Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Kerry courts Hispanic vote with remarks about leaders

John Kerry says he would be a better friend to Latin America than President Bush, whom he accuses of not promoting democracy in the region.


Miami Herald

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is sharpening his criticism of Hugo Chávez, suggesting the Venezuelan president risks becoming an ''outlaw'' if he doesn't ensure that next month's recall referendum on his presidency is conducted fairly.

The comments come as Kerry attempts to portray himself as ''deeply involved'' with Latin America, at the same time accusing the White House of failing to promote democratic reform in Venezuela and elsewhere.

Strategists have suggested the Chávez critique can help Kerry curry support among Cuban-American voters in Florida, who view Chávez as an ally of Fidel Castro. Democrats believe they have an opportunity this year to peel off some reliably Republican Cuban-American voters incensed by the president's recent crackdown on travel and aid to Cuba.


In a televised interview that will air Wednesday in 19 Latin America countries, Kerry called the upcoming referendum in Venezuela ''a real challenge to the entire hemisphere'' and said that ''as president,'' he would ``work with the international community to bring pressure in the interest of democracy.

''Global transparency, accountability of government, democracy, I think is critical everywhere, but particularly to our hemisphere,'' Kerry said in the interview with Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer for the TV program Oppenheimer Presenta. ``If Chavez does not respect that process, then he makes himself an outlaw with respect to those values and those interests.''

The interview with Oppenheimer came as Kerry stepped up his efforts last week to court Hispanics, a critical voting group in several presidential battleground states, including Florida. He lashed out at the Bush administration for not helping Argentina during its 2001 economic downturn and rejected charges that he's ''protectionist'' for suggesting a review of existing trade agreements.

Kerry spent much of last week unveiling Latin American policies and pledging to make immigration reform a top priority.

He gave few details on his immigration policies in the interview but offered his opinion on several Latin American leaders. Asked to name ''three or four'' Latin leaders he respected, Kerry reached back to former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who left office in 1990.

Kerry offered voluminous praise for Mexican President Vicente Fox, describing him as ``charismatic, thoughtful, intelligent, articulate, very capable.''

And he accused President Bush of breaking his promise with respect to Fox. ''He said he was going to work with him, do immigration, have this very significant building block or relationship [and it] hasn't happened,'' Kerry said. ``He just got mad at Vicente Fox because he didn't support Iraq. So they didn't have a discussion. Immigration's been dropped completely.''

Asked about the left-of-center Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Kerry said he was impressed with da Silva's election, ``by the way he came up through the people, by his roots.''

And he suggested da Silva has been ``incredibly responsible monetarily, fiscally.''

''He surprised some people in the direction that he went and I would be very excited about working with him,'' Kerry said.

He was less enthusiastic about Argentina's left-of-center president, Néstor Kirchner, saying he didn't ``have a great sense of him.''

A spokeswoman for the Bush campaign rejected Kerry's assertion that the administration has put Latin America on a back burner.

''This president has a record that stands tall when it comes to Latin America, and he has very good relationships with the different leaders in this hemisphere,'' said Bush spokeswoman Sharon Castillo.

Republicans have charged Kerry with changing his position on Cuba, and Kerry sought in the interview to clarify remarks he made last month about the Varela Project, the petition signed by more than 30,000 Cubans on the island to hold a referendum on whether to hold free elections.


At the time, Kerry noted the project had ``gotten a lot of people in trouble.''

He told Oppenheimer that the remarks were ''misinterpreted'' and said he would do more to work with dissidents.

''I support the dissidents wholeheartedly in Cuba,'' he said. ``My impression, the reason I said it's been counterproductive, is they've been encouraged, but without the kind of policies that . . . empower and change.''