The U.S. State Department says it is encouraged by Nicaragua's decision to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

In a statement issued Tuesday, Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli called the economic pact "Nicaragua's best opportunity" to gain the benefits of trade and investment.

He also said Nicaragua has taken positive political steps since Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick visited last week.

President Bush has said the deal will strengthen democracy and reduce poverty in the Latin American nations that have signed the bill.  

The economic deal removes trade barriers between the United States and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

In the United States, supporters of the plan say it will open new markets for U.S. goods and services.  Critics say it will send U.S. jobs to Central America, where labor is cheaper.