WASHINGTON - President Bush departs early today for a four-nation summit on drugs amid administration efforts to dampen hopes for dramatic results. On the eve of the six-hour meeting on a seacoast island at Cartagena, Colombia, officials played down talk of an enlarged U.S. military role in catching narcotics smugglers in South America.
White House aides are concerned that pre-summit reports of a proposed U.S. radar network might offend the South American governments, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Wednesday.
Such offers of U.S. naval assistance have been put "on the shelf" unless requested by the South Americans, he said.
"If there is discussion of it, we would expect this to be initiated by the host countries," said Fitzwater. However, the spokesman made it clear that Bush would welcome such a discussion.
Participating in the talks will be Bush, President Virgilio Barco of Colombia, President Alan Garcia of Peru and President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia.
As the four leaders prepared for their strategy session on the narcotics war, the Colombian drug barons appeared to make a peace offering. They surrendered three processing labs, which they claimed had been producing 20 tons of cocaine a month.
Colombian and U.S. officials greeted the announcement with skepticism. "Giving up some of their labs doesn't seem to be enough," said a White House official. "We would like to see all of them shut down."
Fitzwater voiced optimism about the "sense of cooperation" that the Cartagena summit would foster, but he and other officials predicted little progress on longstanding differences: Assault weapons. Barco is expected to press Bush to crack down on U.S.-made assault weapons that are being smuggled into the arsenals of Colombia's drug barons.
Barco has openly urged Congress and the administration to halt the flow of the armaments. Colombian and U.S. officials say they expect Barco to raise that issue at the summit.
Bush has vowed stiffer law enforcement but no other action to control the weapons. "We believe the laws are on the books," said Fitzwater, rejecting a call for new regulations.
The assault gun issue is seen as a political "soft spot" for Bush since last July, when he banned the import of 43 foreign made weapons but did not move against thousands of similar guns made domestically.
Many of those weapons are bought in the United States and sent to the drug rings of Colombia.
Commercial trade problems. At a time when the United States is trying to encourage Andean farmers to switch from growing coca to other crops, Bush officials expect little help for Colombia's coffee or flower growers.
Colombians blame the United States for allowing an international coffee agreement to collapse, costing Colombians an estimated $1-billion over two years in lost revenues. Because many nations are involved, the accord cannot be restored by any one nation, say officials.
Bush aides have also conceded that they cannot halt a surcharge assessed against Colombian flower exports following a U.S. Commerce Department ruling. The surcharge resulted from a judicial and administrative procedure, and the president doesn't have the power to interfere, said Fitzwater.
Despite stepped up security measures in preparation for the summit, Fitzwater confirmed Wednesday that two American citizens are being held in Colombia by the pro-Cuban National Liberation Army. The kidnappers said they were protesting the Bush visit, oil prices, and the construction of a subway in Medellin, said Fitzwater.
He added that he knew of no ties to the drug cartels, thought to be the major threat to the summit. The kidnappers have reportedly promised to release their captives after the Cartagena meeting.
Amid concerns for security, Bush was to make the trip with a much smaller than usual traveling staff.
Secretary of State James Baker, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, and national drug policy director William Bennett were scheduled to be aboard Air Force One. Fitzwater said there would be no additional plane for more staff, as is customary on presidential trips.