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Latin America Free Trade Far Off, Despite Bush Trip - 2002-03-24

President Bush concluded his trip to Latin America, Sunday. His last stop was the Central American nation of El Salvador for a half-day visit with regional leaders. Trade was at the top of the agenda, even though U.S. officials say a trade agreement with the region remains a long way off.

In a joint news conference with Salvadoran President Francisco Flores, just before the lunch meeting with all seven regional leaders, Mr. Bush emphasized his commitment to free trade. He noted that he had proposed a free trade agreement with Central America in January and that this is part of an overall strategy to strengthen commerce throughout the western hemisphere.

President Bush said, "We are also going to continue to pursue the Free Trade of the Americas, which aims to encompass the entire hemisphere in a free trade agreement. Completing these agreements will promote prosperity throughout the hemisphere and reinforce the region's progress towards political, economic and social reform."

U.S. officials concede that such agreements are unlikely to be completed any time soon, but Mr. Bush wants to at least start the process of talking about the issue, with an eye towards possible future accords.

The president also responded to a Salvadoran reporter's question about current U.S. barriers to some agricultural products. Mr. Bush defended current U.S. market policies, as the most open in the world. "We buy more goods from all around the world than any nation," he said. "Of course, we are the biggest nation, we are the biggest market. But nevertheless, we buy billions of dollars of goods on an annual basis. Billions. I think it is like $650 billion a year the United States purchases from [other] countries.

President Bush also responded to a criticism made during the Democratic Party's weekly radio address on Saturday, in which he was accused of visiting Latin America so as to pander to U.S. Hispanic voters. Mr. Bush called that "petty politics." He also restated his belief in building strong relations with U.S. neighbors.

My long-standing interest in Mexico and Central America is well known. I firmly believe that the best policy for the United States is to pay attention to our friends and to promote trade. Trade produces liberty and freedom.

In his remarks, Mr. Bush also hailed the progress that has been made by El Salvador since it emerged from its civil war just a little over a decade ago. He said El Salvador is today one of the freest, strongest and most stable democracies in the hemisphere.

After concluding his meeting with Central American leaders, President Bush flew back to Washington.