In an unprecedented trip for a US president, Bill Clinton will spend four days in Central America this week. But just as unexpected, he will witness the determination of Latin America's poorest region to turn a disaster into a better future.
In the aftermath of hurricane Mitch's devastation last fall, the region's leaders are trying to go beyond superficial repairs to long-range reconstruction and regional cooperation.
To help them, the White House unveiled legislation last Thursday to boost Central American exports by granting them NAFTA-like trade conditions for 18 months.
Even with such efforts, thousands of Central Americans - out of work and in many cases still homeless - are heading north to find work in the United States. Both Mexican and American immigration officers are encountering an increase in Central American migrants.
And concerns are high that a slow economic recovery might lead to political instability.
In hard-hit Posoltega, Nicaragua, new houses will soon offer more comfort and services than many families had in their homes washed away.
The idea is not just to rebuild, says community representative Juan Antonio Tercero, but to rebuild better. With the help of Nicaraguan churches, community development groups, the Spanish Red Cross, and the Austrian government, workers are determined to rebuild neighborhoods - not just put roofs over heads.
When Clinton meets with Central American presidents at a summit in Guatemala Thursday, he will hear from leaders set on combining a new era of peaceful stability with intense post-Mitch international attention to build a more prosperous and integrated region.
Clinton's visit, backed by about $1 billion in assistance the administration has already pledged for post-Mitch reconstruction, precedes a larger meeting of Central American countries and international donors set for Stockholm in late May.
The three-day Stockholm meeting, following up on a December meeting in Washington, is designed to take the international assistance effort from the emergency intervention stage - food, clothing, shelter, disease prevention - to reconstruction and transformation.
"With globalization a reality, integration [of Central America] is what the international community wants to see," says Marco Alcazar of the Mexican Foreign Ministry's Commission for Cooperation with Central America.
International donors were impressed when Central American presidents met for a quick summit - minus the usual gold-leaf formality - in the VIP lounge of San Salvador's airport in the days following Mitch. A kind of international race among donors developed as affected countries exposed (and in some cases exaggerated) the damage suffered, and made a case for international debt relief. Successive Central American summits have kept the regional coordination alive, observers say.
Since Mitch struck, causing billions of dollars in damage and leaving tens of thousands homeless, Central American presidents have approved a six-point reconstruction plan emphasizing regional integration.
Education will focus not only on rebuilding education systems but also on teaching disaster prevention methods to the entire population. Another focus area is reduction of disaster vulnerability: creating a network of emergency committees, developing early-warning systems, creating restrictions for high-risk zones.
Special attention is being given to environmental problems, according to Omar Orozco, director of cooperation at the System for the Integration of Central America, or SICA, a San Salvador-based organization established by six Central American countries in 1993 to promote and coordinate regional integration and development.
Development and protection of watersheds is being addressed in a regional fashion "because what one country does so clearly affects another," he says. Reforestation is another focus area, as is preservation of Central America's "biological corridor," a region-long nature preserve.
THE White House legislation to extend preferential trade rules for 18 months stops short of legislation sponsored by Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida that would extend NAFTA parity to the Central American and Caribbean countries through 2005. Senator Graham, who is accompanying Clinton on his trip, says the idea is to encourage primarily textile factories to locate in Mitch-damaged countries to create desperately needed jobs.
Extending NAFTA privileges could run into foul weather over Mexico, however. Mexico, conscious of the dangers of regional instability, has been an active player in Central America's post-Mitch relief and reconstruction effort. Mexico's existing cooperative work with Central America has in many cases been refitted, Mr. Alcazar says, to take post-Mitch needs into consideration.
But at the same time Mexico looks coolly at extending trade privileges that could hurt its own economic growth. A NAFTA-instigated factory boom, including one in textiles, has been one of the fastest growing areas in the Mexican economy.
Although they don't like to talk about it, presumably to avoid raising US objections, Mexican authorities are not generally repelling Central American migrants crossing Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. Instead they are often letting them try crossing into the US. Some are also settling in Mexico.
Following Mitch the US stopped deporting illegal Central American immigrants. Last week it was announced that the stay, which expires today, will not be extended. But the White House is studying a 1997 law to potentially allow up to 200,000 Central Americans - who could face "extreme hardship" if they were sent home - to stay in the country. Critics say stays and other measures against deportation simply encourage illegal immigration, because they are being interpreted in Central America as an open-door policy.