Bush affirms trade pledge

President promises to push for accord with Central America

Latin America tour ends

He defends motives, accuses Democrats of `petty politics'

March 25, 2002|By Edwin Chen | Edwin Chen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - President Bush ended his four-day Latin America visit yesterday in much the same way he began it, promoting democracy and free trade on a final stop in El Salvador. But he also lashed back at Democrats, who had criticized his trip as an effort to pander to Latinos at home, calling the attack "petty politics."

At a joint news conference with Salvadoran President Francisco Flores after their private meeting, Bush said that he has long been committed to free trade and that its promotion was a central mission of his visits to Monterrey, Mexico; Lima, Peru; and the Salvadoran capital.

"When I first got elected, I said the best foreign policy for the United States is to have a prosperous, peaceful and free neighborhood. ... And my longstanding interest in ... Mexico and Central America is well-known," Bush said. "And sometimes in Washington, D.C., people cannot get rid of old habits, which is petty politics."

As he did at earlier stops, Bush praised his host nation's progress toward democracy and free markets, calling El Salvador "one of the really great stories of economic and political transformation of our time."

This nation of 6.2 million, which suffered through four decades of repressive military rule until the 1970s, is rebuilding itself after a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. The fighting claimed tens of thousands of lives, with both sides accused of serious human rights violations.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Bush wanted to stop in El Salvador to "celebrate a region that, I think, 10, 15 years ago, nobody would have given a chance to be living at peace, to be democratic, to have presidents who are interested in pressing the free market."

Bush also wanted to promote what Rice called "the next phase" in U.S.-Central American relations: a trade agreement that would not only foster trade between the United States and the nations of this region but also break down trade barriers among the Central American countries themselves.

Although Bush strongly promoted free trade at each stop, the president came bearing few tangible plans. He has been unable to get the Senate to renew the Andean Trade Preference Act, which exempts a number of Andean products from U.S. tariffs; it expired in December.

The president also supports a similar measure for Central America, but progress has been slow on that front as well.

Bush envisions the Andean Trade Act and a similar Central American measure as building blocks for a future hemispheric free-trade bloc.

On immigration, another key issue for Latin American governments, Bush had hoped the Senate would by now have passed a bill to make it easier for certain illegal immigrants in the United States to obtain visas. But that measure, too, is stalled.

So instead, Bush announced an array of initiatives that require little if any new funding commitments, such as a return of Peace Corps volunteers to Peru after a 27-year hiatus.

In Mexico, he and President Vicente Fox announced a mutual commitment to encourage business investments in rural Mexico.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday that disbursing dollars was never Bush's intention for the trip. Rather, he said, the president's aim was to show U.S. support for Latin America - one of Bush's top priorities before Sept. 11.

After their joint news conference, Bush and Flores were joined for lunch by the presidents of Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama.

As the leaders met, thousands of peasants, union workers and students marched peacefully elsewhere in the capital to protest the proposed free trade between Central America and the United States as an exploitation of cheap labor.

"I see a free-trade agreement as a fight between a trussed-up donkey and a free lion," said Margarita Posada, one of the march organizers. "They come to offer us roads, modern airports and ports just to transport goods to big multinational companies."

Before Bush arrived in El Salvador yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters aboard Air Force One that during the president's stop in Peru, officials from both nations discussed plans to resume interdiction flights against drug smugglers over Peru.

Edwin Chen is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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