After the wrap up of the summit of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Santiago, Chile, President Bush held private talks with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. Mr. Bush emphasized his commitment to strong relations with Latin America.
In a joint news conference following their meeting, President Bush and President Lagos hailed the benefits of the free trade agreement between their two nations. But a Chilean reporter asked President Bush if he was losing influence in the Americas to China. Chinese President Hu Jintao has extended his nation's influence in recent months through trade talks and investment projects amounting to more than $10 billion with nations like Brazil and Argentina. The Chinese have also sought energy and basic commodity agreements in Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
But President Bush said he did not view commerce as a, in his words, "zero sum." He said China's growing economy offers increased trade opportunities to both Latin America and the United States.
In regard to his guest worker program that would benefit Mexican immigrants to the United States, Mr. Bush said he does plan to use some of what he calls his "political capital" after winning re-election earlier this month to push for congressional approval of the plan. "We would much rather have security guards chasing down terrorists or drug smugglers than people coming to work and so, therefore, I think a guest-worker program is important and I look forward to working with Congress on it," he said.
The president said his plan to engage Congress on this issue will be simple and straightforward. "I think it is an important piece of legislation and I am looking forward to working it. You asked me what my tactics are. I am going to look for supporters on the hill [in Congress] and move it," he said.
Reporters also asked President Bush about the looming U.S. deficit and the effect that it has had on the world economy. Mr. Bush said part of his plan to cut the short-term U.S. deficit involves reform of so-called "unfunded liabilities" such as Social Security and Medicare. He said Chile has a model that could be helpful in this regard. "For example, in Social Security, I talked about the need for personal savings accounts for younger workers as a part of a solution. Frankly, the Chilean model serves as a good example for those who are going to be writing the law in the United States," he said.
Chile adopted a privatized retirement system in 1981 after the state-sponsored pension plan came to the brink of bankruptcy. Under the system now in place, workers contribute a percentage of their wages to one of several independently managed mutual funds. Although the Chilean plan is now considered fiscally solid, critics note that it fails to cover all workers and that even some retired workers under the plan rely on government subsidies to remain above the poverty line.
Still, the overall success of the Chilean pension plan has attracted the attention of lawmakers in Washington who are seeking ways of reforming the U.S. Social Security system before it faces crisis.