- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) The United States is starting talks with Central American countries on a possible free-trade agreement there.

President Bush is scheduled to travel to El Salvador tomorrow to talk with Central American leaders about trade. The talks are part of an ongoing push for an eventual free-trade area throughout the Americas.

Both Washington and Mexico have touted North American Free Trade Agreement as the tool that has brought the two countries closer and tripled commerce between them.

Central American leaders have long wanted a piece of the economic pie, and news of the talks has been largely welcomed there.

"Nicaragua and Central America can't waste an opportunity to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States," Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos said recently.

Central American leaders jointly met officials in Washington late last month, then returned home and agreed to create councils made up of union, business and government representatives in each country. Those councils are meant to facilitate negotiations with the United States.

Nicaragua's deputy commerce secretary, Xavier Morales, said he hopes an agreement can be reached at the end of next year.

Salvadoran President Francisco Flores said Central America has already benefited merely from news of the talks.

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