From left: Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos, George W. Bush, and Honduran President Ricardo Maduro.
President Bush is urging prompt congressional passage of a free-trade accord with five Central American nations plus the Dominican Republic.

Flanked by the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, President Bush said the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, will benefit all sides.

"For the newly emerging democracies of Central America, CAFTA would bring new investment that means good jobs and higher labor standards for their workers," said George W. Bush. "Central American consumers would have better access to more U.S. goods at better prices."

In addition to lowering trade barriers, CAFTA is designed to boost U.S. foreign investment and provide greater protection for intellectual property rights.

President Bush said U.S. businesses will profit from the opening of a market containing 44 million consumers. But he stressed that the benefits of CAFTA would extend beyond financial gains, arguing that the trade pact would help consolidate democracy in the Americas.

"Today a part of the world that was once characterized by oppression and military dictatorship now sees its future in free elections and free trade," he said. "And we must not take these gains for granted."

Speaking with reporters afterwards, Honduran President Ricardo Maduro expressed confidence that increased trade will bring tangible economic benefits to Central America's impoverished masses.

The Honduran leader said, "We are here for the poor people of our countries and for the democratic system. This accord will help achieve goals that will be felt by poor people in their wallets. They believe in democracy, but they need palpable material gains."

But critics point out that a similar trade deal between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, called NAFTA, caused hardship for Mexican agricultural sectors that could not compete with heavily-subsidized U.S. farm products.

Former Democratic Congressman Esteban Torres of California says he regrets having voted for NAFTA in the 1990s, and worries that CAFTA will cost some U.S. factory workers their jobs and put hundreds of thousands of Central American farmers out of work.

Mr. Torres spoke with reporters via teleconference.

"I do not see the issues of fair labor and wage standards [being addressed]," said Esteban Torres. "I do not see the environmental standards in place there [with the agreement]. And I do not see the promise for better economic returns at all to those [Latin American] republics."

Labor groups and environmental organizations oppose CAFTA, while U.S. business groups strongly back the trade pact.

CAFTA faces an uncertain fate in the U.S. Congress. Many legislators from agriculture-rich states have voiced support for the trade pact, while others from heavily-industrialized states or states that receive significant numbers of illegal immigrants have signaled concern or opposition.