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Clinton to see a bootstrapping region

Central America pledges to 'transform' itself as it asks for aid andtrade on visit this week.

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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.

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