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    Bush Presses US Congress on Latin America Trade Deals

    President Bush Friday urged the U.S. Congress to approve a set of free trade accords with Colombia, Panama and Peru. VOA's Brian Wagner reports that Mr. Bush said the trade deals will benefit U.S. business and boost democracy in the region.

    President Bush made the speech in Miami, Florida noting it is crucial for U.S. trade with Latin America and other parts of the world. He said that $72 billion in goods and products passed through Miami's ports last year.

    The president said the strength of international trade has helped push the area's economic growth and employment levels above national averages. "I think the case for trade is unmistakable in Miami, and we need to make that case all over the country. I've come to a place that has benefited from trade so others around the country can understand it can happen in their areas as well," he said.

    Mr. Bush said a centerpiece of his economic policy has been pursuing free trade deals with other nations, and while in office, he has expanded the number of such deals from three to 14.

    Now he is again pressing Congress to approve pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and Peru. He said U.S. exporters will benefit the most under the deals, because they would lower trade duties on many American products sent to the Latin American nations.

    "Our free trade agreements would knock down many of these barriers and level the playing field for our businesses and farmers and workers. Together these agreements would expand access to 75 million new customers with a combined GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of $245 billion," said.

    Lawmakers in U.S. Congress have voiced support for the agreements with Panama and Peru, but the future of the Colombian plan is unclear. Some legislators have criticized the Colombian government for failing to prevent or investigate attacks on union leaders. They say Colombia must do more before a trade deal is approved.

    President Bush said Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe has made great strides in his nation, while he recognized that some concerns remain. But he stressed that increasing ties with Colombia was the best way to bring about further improvements.

    "Colombia's record is not perfect, but the country is clearly headed in the right direction and is asking for our help," he said.

    The president also said the deal with Colombia was crucial to America's strategic interests in the region, especially in the fight against drug traffickers and terrorist groups.

    In recent months, the Bush administration has sought to strengthen ties with Latin American allies, amid sharp criticism from Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez and some other regional leaders.

    The president said the three pending trade deals could help further those efforts. "This agreements will counter their false populism promoted by some nations in the hemisphere. These agreements will strengthen the forces of freedom and democracy throughout the Americas," he said.

    After the speech, President Bush departed Miami to spend the weekend on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

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