Bush makes pledge to push for free trade in Latin America

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The Independent US

US president George Bush promised yesterday to push for free-trade policies for economically strapped Latin America and said the United States "is wide open" to buy goods from around the world.

Winding up a trip to Mexico, Peru and El Salvador, Mr Bush also pledged to promote immigration policies linking workers from the area with American jobs. And he said it was in the best interests of the US to have a "prosperous and peaceful" Latin America, a region known for decades of civil war, poverty and strife.

Trade, Mr Bush said, will "reinforce the region's progress toward political, economic and social reform."

"We're going to continue to pursue the Free Trade of the Americas [agreement], which aims to encompass the entire hemisphere," he said.

Bush's new free-trade pitch came just days after he slapped new tariffs on steel and softwood lumber imported to the US. Those measures were introduced partly because the Bush administration concluded foreign governments were unfairly subsidising those industries. Asked about US subsidies for agricultural produce that hurt smaller countries, Bush said he could do little about such programs approved by Congress. But, he said, "Our market's wide open."

Salvadoran President Francisco Flores and his wife, Lourdes, met Mr Bush and First Lady Laura Bush on their arrival. Hundreds of military personnel stood to attention. Mr Bush greeted his counterpart with an embrace and Mrs Flores with a kiss.

Over a quick lunch with the leaders of El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama, Mr Bush planned to underscore his intent to make the long climb toward a US-Central America free trade agreement.

Critics say two new tariffs imposed by the United States this month raised questions about Bush's commitment to free trade in the Americas.

The Bush administration on Friday imposed tariffs totalling 29 percent on Canadian softwood lumber for what the Commerce Department said was unfair trading practices.

Also this month, the United States clamped tariffs of up to 30 percent on several types of imported steel. The decision angered Brazil, which exported $726 million worth of steel products to the US last year.

A special trade pact between Central America and its giant neighbor to the North remains just an idea. Formal talks have yet to begin, or even be planned, and other trade agreements which have already been made offer little by way of promising precedent.