Secretary of State Colin Powell flies to Panama Monday on a Central American mission that will also take him to Nicaragua and Honduras. The agenda for talks include security issues, narco-trafficking, and efforts to conclude a U.S.-Central American free-trade accord by year's-end.
The two-day trip will be Mr. Powell's first visit to Latin America since a visit to Chile and Argentina last June.
His first stop Monday will be Panama City where he'll join in observances of the 100th anniversary of Panama's independence and meet with Panamanian President Mireya Elisa Moscoso.
Overnighting in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, he'll hold talks there with President Enrique Bolanos and other senior officials and conclude the brief trip later Tuesday in Tegucigalpa with talks with Honduran President Ricardo Maduro.
State Department officials say the talks in all three capitals will focus on the fight against terrorism and narco-traffickers, efforts to strengthen democracy and fight corruption in the region, and economic development including the drive for a free-trade agreement between the United States and Central American countries.
At a briefing Friday at Washington's Foreign Press Center, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the parties aim to conclude the trade accord by the end of the year.
"We do have this goal of reaching agreement by the end of the year with the Central American countries," he said. The secretary and foreign ministers of Central America talked about it at the United Nations in September. There have been follow-up discussions in Houston, I think, about ten days ago. And things are actually going pretty well. So the secretary will look for an opportunity to talk about that, make sure it's moving along, and that we're all doing everything we can to move it along."
Secretary Powell told interviewers Thursday the Bush administration remains committed to seeking a hemisphere-wide free-trade agreement, though negotiations for that are bogged down over problem issues including demands by Brazil and Argentina, among others, that the United States end agricultural subsidies.
Mr. Powell said the Bush administration realizes that the price supports distort markets, but that it is hard to deal with the issue as long as the European Union and Japan maintain subsidies even larger than those provided to U.S. farmers.
On the drug issue, Mr. Powell said U.S. officials are "very ashamed" that drug problems in Central and South America are driven by demand for narcotics on the streets of U.S. cities. But he said the United States and Latin American countries still have to keep working together to reduce the supply of illicit drugs and interdict shipments.