President Bush has signed legislation enacting the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which he says will help young democracies in the region and create more U.S. jobs.
The hard-fought trade agreement eliminates tariffs on about $15 billion worth of annual U.S. exports to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
Those countries already enjoy duty-free status for most of their exports to the United States, and President Bush says the new deal levels that playing field.
At a White House signing ceremony, President Bush said the trade deal, known as CAFTA, will help create more U.S. jobs while helping Central American nations deliver better lives for their citizens by attracting more foreign trade and investment.
Mr. Bush says that growth will reduce poverty and contribute to the rise of what he calls a vibrant middle class, giving hope and opportunity to people who have chosen democracy.
"All of us understand that strengthening our economic ties with our democratic neighbors is vital to America's economic and national security interests," the president said. "And all of us understand that by strengthening ties with democracies in our hemisphere, we are advancing the stability that comes from freedom."
Mr. Bush says the small nations of CAFTA are making big commitments, and the trade pact is a signal that the United States is standing with them.
The president says free societies eliminate the lawlessness and instability that terrorists, criminals, and drug traffickers feed on. Mr. Bush says that makes helping regional democracies vital to U.S. national security.
"Two decades ago, many of the CAFTA nations struggled with poverty and dictatorship and civil strife," he said. "Today they are working democracies, and we must not take these gains for granted. These nations still face forces that oppose democracy, seek to limit economic freedom and want to drive a wedge between the United States and the rest of the Americas."
President Bush says greater opportunity in Central America means it is less likely that citizens of those countries will try to come to the United States illegally.
The free trade pact narrowly passed the House of Representatives last week after intense lobbying by the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney spent more than five hours on Capitol Hill during the vote, while President Bush telephoned members of Congress from the White House.
Fifteen Democrats joined most House Republicans in passing the measure by just two votes. Opposition Democrats say the pact does not do enough to protect workplace safety in Central America. Some Republicans say the measure will hurt domestic sugar and textile manufacturers.