Washington Sen. John Kerry called Saturday for a closer relationship between the United States and Latin America, saying the Bush administration has not paid sufficient attention to some of the country's closest neighbors.
"Instead of being a good neighbor, the president has ignored a wide range of ills, including political and financial crises, runaway unemployment, drug trafficking," the Democratic presidential hopeful said in a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Kerry pledged to create a "Community of the Americas" to help coordinate efforts to improve security for the United States and Latin American nations. "Neighbors look after neighbors, recognizing that we all have a stake in each other's future," he said.
As part of the alliance, he also said he would increase funding for programs that promote development and strengthen democratic institutions in Latin America.
Bush was also invited to address the nonpartisan organization, which began its annual convention late last week in Washington. The president's campaign chairman, former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, addressed the group for him Friday as Bush left for stops in Europe before attending a NATO summit in Turkey later this week.
On Saturday, the Bush campaign responded to Kerry's criticisms of the administration's policies toward Latin America, saying the Massachusetts senator was ignoring the president's work with the region's leaders.
"Kerry's global pessimism ignores the reality that President Bush is rallying support for economic opportunity in the Americas through trade agreements that John Kerry opposes," said spokesman Steve Schmidt.
Kerry told the members of NALEO, which represents more than 6,000 Hispanic officials around the United States, that he would renegotiate the Central American Free Trade Agreement to seek stronger protections for workers and the environment.
Both campaigns are focused this year on wooing Hispanic voters, who could play pivotal roles in determining November's winner in several closely contested states, including Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.
In his address, Kerry touched on his plans to improve the economy, education and health care.
He reiterated his support for an earned legalization program that would allow undocumented immigrants who have resided in the United States for long periods of time to become citizens.