THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release February 16, 1999 2:32 P.M. EST
REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY
AND MRS. GORE
The Presidential Hall
Old Executive Office Building
MRS. GORE: Thank you very much, Madam Secretary. I also appreciate being here with Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Caldera*, of the U.S. Army, and all our guests from the Diplomatic Corps.
As Brian mentioned, I was honored and privileged to lead the bipartisan U.S. delegation that traveled to the region last November to inspect the damage and offer hope and comfort to the people that were so affected by Hurricane Mitch. And I would like to also acknowledge Representative Xavier Becerra of California, who was a member of the delegation and who also shoveled mud, shoulder-to-shoulder with us, out of a schoolhouse, and who was a very strong member of the delegation, and we are pleased that he could join us today. Also Representative Ruben Hinojosa, thank you very much for being here.
And our visit gave us the opportunity to witness firsthand the devastation in the region that has been reported so well by the media, and I would like to thank the media for their care and attention to make sure that people understood the proportions of the devastation to the region. And I think they did a great job.
Just from Hurricane Mitch there were more than 9,000 confirmed deaths; some 3 million people who were left homeless or displaced; damages to homes, hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and property that exceeded some $8.5 billion. People just absolutely left without any infrastructure in terms of making their livelihoods. So, literally, this was the worst storm recorded in history in this hemisphere.
The people that I met made an indelible impression upon me and upon members of the delegation, I know. I remember meeting Carolina, a young woman in Tegucigalpa who had worked tirelessly, and I don't think had slept even by the time that we got there, to save hundreds and hundreds of people, along with other members of her community, by going door to door to warn the elderly.
It's a wonderful warm knit community -- in fact, many warm knit communities all around the area. And so they knew who lived where and who to go to make sure that they got out.
So she literally threw stones through the windows of cars to get people out as the cars were being engulfed by water, broke down doors and windows to get the elderly out of their homes because they didn't really understand some of the danger that this storm represented. Community leaders, like Carolina, are the unsung heroes of this storm.
I remember seeing families in refugee camps in Managua whose only homes were made from plastic and sheeting and wire that was strung, but who strung that on foundations of homes that would be theirs in the future, should they choose to build. And I think that that was something that gave them great hope even in that situation.
Most of all, I remember a little girl who pressed into my hands a medallion of the Virgin Mary after a long visit with her and other children in a makeshift camp. And she said to me, "I'm giving you this because I don't want you to forget me. I want you to remember always." And I have that.
These are remarkable people with great strength and great determination. And I'm so proud that America has responded so very well. Since the hurricane struck, we have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in food and water, medical supplies, emergency transportation and other relief. And the aid has helped prevent the spread of diseases that you see out come from after disasters like this -- so very important that that got there very, very quickly -- diseases like cholera and malaria.
It has also helped to open highways and roads and restores bridges that are so vital to get the supplies through to the areas that have been the hardest hit. Schools are now reopening, including a school in Tegucigalpa that our delegation worked to clear of two feet of mud, so it could be used as a medical facility temporarily. And now it's back to being a school, which is wonderful.
We're very proud of the tremendous job that Brian Atwood, as the Secretary of State just said, and the staff of the U.S. Agency for International Development have done to respond to the crisis. It's really been beyond the call of duty, what they've done. And more than 5,000 members of our military who are on the ground today, helping our neighbors to repair the damage and rebuild, we thank them very much.
And now is the task before us -- it is to move from the emergency relief assistance that saved so many lives to focus on the long-term economic issues. In my report to President Clinton following the trip, I recommended additional ways to help begin that long-term recovery. We made recommendations on debt relief, a temporary stay of deportation for immigrants, public-private partnerships and deployment of skilled Peace Corps volunteers to help communities rebuild. The President has already accepted and begun acting on many of our recommendations, the recommendations of the delegation.
Last December, I was pleased to meet many of you at a reconstruction conference that we sponsored on ways that federal agencies could partner with the private sector and NGOs. I also met with the first group of Peace Corps alumni, known as the Crisis Corps, that are now working in Central America. I saw them before they went off.
Today we are taking another very important step. I'm pleased to announce that today's proposal includes funding to enable substantial debt relief by the U.S., and to encourage relief by others. We've taken many steps to show that we stand with the people of Central America in solidarity to help them recover their homes, their livelihoods, their economy, and their lives, and to ensure that we fully understand -- we the people of the United States will not forget them. We'll continue to stand with them.
And now, please welcome a woman who has done so very much to bring hope and support of the American people to nations all around the world. Please welcome America's ambassador of goodwill, our first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Applause.)
MRS. CLINTON: Thank you, thank you very much. I'm so pleased that this day has come. And I understand some of you were a little delayed at the gate, for which I apologize, but we're delighted you are all here to be part of these announcements this afternoon.
We owe a great debt to my friend, and someone who has done a tremendous job on so many issues, Tipper Gore, for immediately bringing public attention to what had happened in Central America, and I want to thank her, personally, again for that.
Secretary Albright, thank you for your leadership, and for shepherding American diplomacy into the new century so well and with such strength and purpose. Secretary Caldera, thank you for being here. I enjoyed very much seeing you when I was on the ground visiting our troops, and it gave me such a tremendous sense of pride to see the men and women of the United States military performing as well as they always do, given whatever assignment they undertake.
I, too, want to thank Brian Atwood, and the entire USAID family for the work they do every day around the world, and in particular, what they've done here.
I also want to say a special word of appreciation to Maria Echaveste, who headed up the President's task force that has led us to the recommendations that we are making today in response to the need that was reported to the President. And the people who put on the green eyeshades and find the money over at OMB, I want to thank all of you for working double- and triple-time to make this day happen. To the members of Congress, to the ambassadors and other members of the diplomatic community, and particularly to all the NGOs represented here, I want to thank you for your strong presence on behalf of the people of the United States, as you served on the front lines to help open roads, restore homes, bring services back into isolated communities, literally to save lives in Central America and the Caribbean.
This has been one of the most extraordinary international efforts in recent memory. When I visited the region shortly after Hurricane Mitch, I not only talked with American troops about what we were doing, but I saw firsthand supplies and troops coming from other countries, literally, around the world. On the tarmac in Honduras I saw a plane from Japan and another filled with food and clothing that just happened to be from Little Rock, Arkansas -- I don't know that that was planned. But more than that, I was moved by the meetings and conversations that I had with the leaders of these countries and with the citizens who have embarked on an extraordinary effort to rebuild not only the physical infrastructure of their countries, but more than that, the sense of hope and optimism that had recently come to this region after so many years of bloodshed and war, disappointment and pessimism about the future.
A woman in Nicaragua told me that the hurricane, in terms of its damage, was worse than both the war and the earthquake that leveled Managua. And when I obviously expressed some surprise at that rather remarkable statement, she said that it was because, unlike the terrible problems with the earthquake, or even unlike the years of unrest and war, certain parts of the country were left untouched, and life could go on, somewhat normally.
But here, the entire country was affected. Entire crops wiped out, villages destroyed, parents left without jobs or food for their children, so that it's clear that these nations that we are addressing today need not just short-term humanitarian relief, which we have come forward with in an extraordinary show of support, but they need long-term reconstruction, which is why, when my husband first announced U.S. assistance to help the people of Central America get back on their feet and look again toward the future with hope and optimism, he made it clear that we would stand with the people of these countries for the long haul. And today, we are making good on that promise.
I'm very pleased that the President has proposed funding of nearly $1 billion to help our Latin American neighbors repair and rebuild in the aftermath of these disasters. This proposal will bring our total commitment to over $1.2 billion, and it will help in several critical ways. First, if this funding is approved, 17 million people will have help protecting themselves from the contagious diseases that too often rear their ugly heads in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Seven hundred health clinics will be up and running, and more than 7 million people will have access to clean water and proper sanitation. Second, this proposal will help create jobs, boost economies and rebuild entire communities.
When I was in Central America, I heard time and time again that the leaders, this new generation of leaders in these countries, understood very well that it was not enough just to stop the fighting, as important as that was, to reach peace agreements and to be able to establish the rule of law and democracy, but instead there had to be sustained investments in the well-being of the people of these countries -- investments in education, to raise literacy rates; in health care, to lower maternal and infant mortality rates. And it is this progress which has been so much put at risk because of the devastation of these hurricanes.
I remember very well in my meeting with the leadership of Guatemala and the promises that were made when the peace agreements were signed two years ago. Those promises were not just about decommissioning weapons, as important as that is. Those promises included investing more money in education and in health care and in making it possible for the people who are now free of war to feel that they have a future worth building.
In Nicaragua alone, 60 percent of the citizens are unemployed as a result of the hurricane. For farmers whose crops were wiped out, the President's proposal will provide important tools to help restore production. For people in rural areas, it will reinstall the roads and bridges that bring produce to markets and create jobs. And for 70,000 entrepreneurs, it will provide the small loans needed for microbusinesses. This is something that we feel very strongly about in this administration, from the President on. And some of you may have been in the White House last week when we held our second annual awards ceremony here in the United States to honor microenterprise. But we know that it's a tool for building lives and creating markets where none exist before. And so this proposal will include such funding.
The President's proposal will also help rebuild the roads, homes and schools that people rely on every day. For example, 6,000 new open-air schools will be created, and school supplies will be put in the hands of 200,000 children.
Finally, this proposal, we hope, will help our neighbors prepare for their future in several different ways. They need more help in creating better systems to deal with disasters; that is one of the strong recommendations that I heard as I met with the leaders in these countries. Some countries were better prepared than others, but all can use some additional help.
They also need help in shifting the way they do agriculture, not only to more productive crops, but to help manage the environment better. Some of the damage was caused by the impact that erosion had created in many of the areas, so that the rains literally had nowhere to go but to create mudslides. So there needs to be more thought given as to how to create productive agricultural land with, perhaps, new crops, and, at the same time, undo the damage that erosion and environmental degradation has created in order to be better prepared for future storms.
This package also includes $50 million to help the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the eastern Caribbean restore the housing, health care and jobs destroyed by Hurricane George. I saw, again, personally, when I visited the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the continuing effects of the damage from Hurricane George in both of those countries. And this will be a very welcome addition to the work that those countries are doing.
This proposal also includes an additional $10 million to help the victims of the recent earthquake in Colombia, a devastating earthquake whose damage is still being assessed in some remote areas of Colombia.
From the start, our obligation to help Central America and the Caribbean recover from these tragedies has transcended politics; and so, too, must it now. This entire proposal is the product of close, bipartisan consultation with members of Congress from both Houses and both sides of the aisle. I'm very heartened by the support that Republican members have given, many who also made the trip to see for themselves the effect of these hurricanes. And it is our hope that Congress will quickly act to pass this proposal.
On March 8th, I will accompany the President on his trip to Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where he will see the destruction firsthand, where he will also meet with people who have been affected, as well as meeting with American troops and American NGOs. And he will hear what all of you in this room know so well, how important it is for us to extend a helping hand to our neighbors, to help them heal and rebuild.
I know that many of you who have worked in Central America and the Caribbean for many years understand how devastating the effect of these hurricanes have been. We understand how, at just the moment in time when all of these countries were poised for the future, this devastating natural disaster has seemed to come out of nowhere and set them back with respect to pursuing their dreams and their hopes.
Well, we want to be friends and partners in rebuilding those dreams and hopes, and that is what the President's proposal attempts to do. It is why, I hope, in addition to what we're able to provide through this supplemental appropriation, the
American people will continue with their generous support as well. With every road or bridge we help rebuild, with every crop that is planted, with every school and health clinic that is rebuilt, we want to send a strong message to the people of Central America and the Caribbean, who have overcome so much in recent years, that we will continue to stand by them as we move toward the future together.
We understand that the future of the United States is linked to the future of the people of these countries. And it is a great point of personal pleasure for me to be part of a process that helps bring together our countries and the people of our countries and our governments on behalf not only of the reconstruction work that needs to be done, and not even just on behalf of the humanitarian relief that must continue, but on behalf of this new strong friendship among our peoples.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)