Particularly pernicious is the threat of drug trafficking. Working with the OAS and other organizations, we seek to eliminate the scourge of drug trafficking in our hemisphere. Countries of the hemisphere are striving to better organize and coordinate efforts to extradite and prosecute individuals charged with drug trafficking and related crimes; combat money laundering; seize assets used in criminal activity; halt illicit traffic in precursors and essential chemicals; strike at the financial support networks; enhance national drug abuse awareness and treatment programs; and drastically curtail illicit crops through alternative development and eradication programs. In the Caribbean, and bilaterally with Mexico and Colombia, we are working to increase counterdrug and law enforcement cooperation.
At the same time, we recognize linkages between the threats posed to the United States as the principal consumer of illicit drugs and related threats posed to source countries and transit zone states. Accordingly, as we seek to expand regional cooperation in the counterdrug arena, we recognize our obligation to aggressively combat the illegal export of U.S.-origin weapons to criminal and insurgent groups that are engaged in, or benefit from, drug trafficking.
Colombia is of special importance because drug trafficking is fueling the longest running internal conflict in the region. The combination of armed insurgents, growing paramilitary movement, corruption, and economic malaise extends beyond its borders and has implications for regional peace and security. To turn the tide, the United States is providing the Colombian Government assistance to wage a comprehensive effort to promote the mutually reinforcing goals of peace, illicit drug control, economic development, and respect for human rights. The Government of Colombia has developed a comprehensive six-year strategy, Plan Colombia, to revive its economy, strengthen the democratic pillars of society, promote the peace process, and reduce drug production and trafficking. We are providing significant assistance for Plan Colombia in a manner that will concurrently promote U.S. and Colombian interests, and we will encourage our allies and international institutions to do the same.
The extent of bilateral cooperation with Mexico in the fight against drug trafficking is unprecedented. We have created the High-Level Contact Group and a variety of working groups to reach a joint diagnosis and settle on a common strategy. Moreover, the mutually agreed upon Performance Measures of Effectiveness will allow us to better evaluate our counterdrug efforts. We are working together to reduce demand for illegal drugs, combat money laundering, avoid the misuse of precursors and essential chemicals, stop the illegal trafficking of arms or migrants, broaden our ability to intercept drugs, and apprehend those who are involved in drug trafficking.
Economic growth and integration in the Americas will profoundly affect the prosperity of the United States in the 21st century. This begins with our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Since the 1989 U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, and subsequently the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, our trade with Canada and Mexico has grown rapidly. Canada remains our largest trade partner, and Mexico has become our second largest trading partner. The United States and Mexico have also resolved important trade differences, made progress toward easier access for the relevant products of both nations, and consolidated our trade area as one of the most powerful in the world. In the hemisphere as a whole, our trade initiatives offer a historic opportunity to capitalize on and strengthen the unprecedented trend toward democracy and free market economics.
We seek to advance the goal of an integrated hemisphere of free market democracies by building on NAFTA. Formal negotiations are in progress to initiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2005. The negotiations cover a broad range of important issues, including market access, investment, services, government procurement, dispute settlement, agriculture, intellectual property rights, competition policy, subsidies, anti-
dumping, and countervailing duties. We will seek to ensure that the agreement also supports workers’ rights, environmental protection and sustainable development. To address the concerns of smaller economies prior to completion of the FTAA, and in light of the increased competition NAFTA presents, we have obtained Congressional approval for enhanced trade preferences offered to Central American and Caribbean countries under the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act.
The United States will continue its effective partnership with the IMF, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the governments of Latin America, and the private sector to help the region’s countries in their transition to integrated, market economies. A key target of this partnership is assisting the reform and recovery of banking sectors hurt by financial market turmoil over the past several years. We will continue to support financial and economic reform efforts in Brazil and Argentina to reduce their vulnerability to external shocks, as well as help Ecuador on its difficult road to economic recovery and sustainable levels of debt service. Similarly, we will continue to play an active role with our regional partners in facilitating timely responses to, and recovery from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua, Hurricane Keith in Belize, and the adverse economic disruptions throughout the region resulting from El Nino.
Helping countries in the hemisphere to translate economic growth into social progress is critical for promoting sustainable growth and sustaining democracy. Despite recent progress, Latin American and Caribbean countries have the greatest income disparities of any region — with the poorest 20% of individuals receiving just 4.5% of the total income within the region. We will continue to support investments in human development, particularly the provision of stronger and more efficient basic education and health services. Between the United States and Mexico there has been significant growth in educational programs emphasizing literacy, bilingual education and exchanges between classroom teachers, cultural institutions and artists. In the area of health, we are creating the Border Health Commission to study the epidemiology of the border area in order to battle diseases.
We also view it as essential that economic prosperity in our hemisphere be pursued in an environmentally sustainable manner. From our shared seas and freshwater resources to migratory bird species and transboundary air pollution, the environmental policies of our neighbors can have a direct impact on quality of life at home. Working with Mexico, we have taken concerted action to monitor air quality, intensify research on environmental health issues, follow the cross-border movement of toxic wastes or illegal migrants, coordinate activities that will benefit nature preserves, and use debt relief to further protect tropical forests. United States Government assistance to the region recognizes the vital link between sustainable use of natural resources and long-term prosperity, a key to developing prosperous trading partners in this hemisphere.