By Elaine Monaghan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday underlined the Bush administration's increased focus on Hispanic issues by launching a drive for more Hispanic American diplomats.
He signed a deal with a student association to attract new recruits and pledged to improve the State Department's record on employing members of America's fastest-growing minority
"We haven't been doing too well," he told the audience at a signing ceremony of a Principles of Cooperation with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU).
Only four percent of State Department employees are Hispanic, compared to 6.6 percent among federal employees overall and 12.5 percent of the population overall, the first African American secretary of state said.
Black voters overwhelmingly rejected President Bush in favor of Democrat Al Gore in an election in November. Republicans are targeting Hispanics, who like blacks make up about 10 percent of the voting population but are expected to overtake them as the largest U.S. minority by 2005.
"We've taken action to make sure that Hispanic Americans are properly represented in the work of the United States," just as Americans in the past protested for the equal rights promised in the Declaration of Independence, Powell said.
The deal forged new links with HACU, which groups 245 institutions with two-thirds of all Hispanics in U.S. higher education, aiming to increase their awareness about the State Department as an employer.
Powell and HACU President Antonio Flores noted before signing the deal that the president's first foreign port of call after taking office in January had been Mexico, and that President Vicente Fox had been the first foreign leader to visit him.
Bush and Powell departed later that Monday for the president's first European tour, where their first stop was the Spanish capital Madrid, Powell noted.
"All of this seems to signal the fact that Secretary Powell and President Bush have wisely concluded that it is in America's best interests, and it is in fact necessary for the future prosperity of our nation, that the Western Hemisphere takes a top priority in our foreign policy," Flores said.
Powell introduced three young Hispanics sworn in that day as State Department interns as an example of the deal's goal.
Maybe in 25 years or so one of them would be sworn in as Secretary of State, he said, welcoming them to their posts.
"Don't restrict yourselves to Hispanic issues. The world is yours," he said.