Union Tribune

March 25, 2002

Bush path to Latin free trade has hurdles


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador President Bush ended a four-day
tour of Latin America yesterday by raising the prospect of a
free-trade agreement with Central America.

Playing off a key theme of the trip, the president hailed this once war-torn nation as an example of the redemptive power of
democracy and free markets in solving a range of problems,
including terrorism and narcotics trafficking.

Now comes the hard part.

Bush, back in Washington, must translate yesterday's suggestion and pledges made at earlier stops in Mexico and Peru into reality over the looming opposition of powerful lobbies. Immigration and trade, focus of much of the talks, are both thorny issues on Capitol Hill.

With more than 1 million Salvadorans and others from the
region migrating to the United States in search of jobs, Bush,
who met with the leaders of El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala,
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama, said that
increased trade and other economic strategies could help solve
their mutual immigration problem by increasing employment
opportunities at home.

Bush's journey sought to reconnect him with the hemisphere.
From the beginning of his presidency, Bush has assigned a high
priority to building closer ties with Latin America, but that
priority became sidetracked by the Sept. 11 attacks on the
Pentagon and the World Trade Center, which plunged his
administration into a war against global terrorism.

"He won himself some good will and credibility," said M. Delal
Baer, a specialist on the region at the Washington-based Center
for International and Strategic Studies. Referring to problems
ranging from Argentina's financial collapse to Colombia's drug
cartels, Baer added, "The hemisphere is the shakiest it's been in
many years. If Bush hadn't made the trip . . . it would have been like saying that Latin America can disintegrate and we have no interest."

With the global war on terrorism as a backdrop, Bush also used
the trip as an opportunity to flesh out a more complete portrait
of his role as an anti-terrorism warrior.

Attempting to move beyond a policy largely defined until now
by bullets and bombs, Bush argued at every opportunity that
trade, foreign investment and foreign aid could help enormously
in alleviating some of the conditions that breed terrorism.

Democrats, who have been reluctant to criticize Bush's war
policies directly, have started counterattacking with increasing
confidence from oblique angles.

During the weekend, Antonio Villaraigosa, former speaker of the
California Assembly, characterized Bush's trip as "part of an
orchestrated strategy to curry favor with Latino voters in the
United States."

"Our community knows the difference between rhetoric and
results," added Villaraigosa, an unsuccessful candidate for
mayor of Los Angeles. "They know the difference between
pandering and producing."

Bush yesterday brushed aside Villaraigosa's attack as "petty

The exchange was prompted by Bush's refusal to embrace a
Democratic plan for legalizing the status of about 3 million
undocumented Mexicans living in the United States.

In addition to immigration's intricate, emotional politics, Bush
also must confront the complexities of the trade issue both at
home and elsewhere in the hemisphere.

His vision of a more interconnected and prosperous hemisphere
hinges on a complex web of deals, ranging from a solo free-trade arrangement with Chile to a continent-spanning Free Trade Area of the Americas. The agenda also includes a regional trade pact with a group of Andean countries and the approach outlined yesterday involving Central America.

With the exception of the Andean trade deal, those plans cannot be realized until Congress approves a bill that would renew presidential trade negotiating authority.

Though the political momentum on Capitol Hill appears to be
running in the president's direction, Bush still must reckon with
the power of vested interests and their protectionist demands,
especially the textile industry and the producers of crops such
as sugar.

Once at the negotiating table, administration trade officials will
have to deal with a varied set of hemispheric agendas, such as
Brazil's demand that U.S. trade barriers be substantially

In addition, Bush's pledge on Saturday in Lima, Peru, to help the
Andean countries of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia with
their mutual problems of political insurgency and drug
trafficking is likely to raise difficult questions about the extent of America's military involvement in the region.

Peter Hakim, director of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington
think tank, noted that Bush's appearance last week at a
conference on global development in Monterrey, Mexico, had to
compete for attention with Fidel Castro's noisy departure. The
Cuban strongman complained that U.S. pressure had forced him
from the scene.

The incident served as a reminder that for all of Bush's speeches
about hemispheric togetherness, Washington remains out of
sync with almost all of its neighbors over the status of the Castro regime.

"It's a distraction, and a distraction that has costs," Hakim said.