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Bush Talks Trade With Panama

President Bush returned to the United States after a trip to Central and South America that focused largely on boosting trade in the hemisphere. He found a sympathetic ear in the Panamanian capital.

After failing to win consensus on a hemispheric free trade zone at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, Mr. Bush is looking to individual countries eager for business with the United States.

He has found one in Panama, where President Martin Torrijos has made expanding trade a priority.

"We are in the midst of negotiating a free trade agreement with Panama. And I told the president, this free-trade agreement is important for America, as he told me it is important for Panama. And we are close to coming to an agreement," Mr. Bush said.

Speaking to reporters after talks at the presidential palace in Panama City, Mr. Bush downplayed the differences at the Summit of the Americas, where five countries opposed hemispheric-wide negotiations. Mr. Bush focused instead on the other 29 participants.

"Twenty-nine nations said loud and clear, it is important for us to continue to advance a trade agenda that is positive for the people of this hemisphere," he said.

Other topics that were on the agenda for the Bush-Torrijos meeting were fighting drug trafficking and plans to modernize the Panama Canal, issues that have played a key role in the long shared history of Panama and the United States.

The United States built the canal almost a century ago, and it reverted to Panamanian control under treaties signed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter and Panama's military leader General Omar Torrijos, the current Panamanian president's father.

Mr. Bush visited one of the locks on the canal during his trip. The United States is still the largest user of the canal, but today it is too narrow for some international shipping. President Bush said he agrees the time to modernize and expand the canal has come.

"I think it is wise for the government to consider modernizing the canal," he said. "Things have changed since the canal was first built, and there needs to be a continued appraisal of the canal, to make sure it is used."

There were also reminders during his brief stay of Mr. Bush's personal family links to Panama. In 1989, his father, former President George Bush, ordered the U.S. invasion that ousted military strongman Manuel Noriega. Small groups of protesters took to the streets during this visit to denounce the invasion, in which some Panamanians died.

Manuel Noriega was ultimately convicted in the United States on drug trafficking charges. He is now serving a 40-year sentence in Miami.