- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

SAN SALVADOR For the often-ignored leaders of Central America, a brief, friendly visit from President Bush worked wonders.

"There is something totally different in the visit of President Bush and the proposal of President Bush for the Central American region," El Salvador's president, Francisco Flores, said late Sunday, hours after Mr. Bush left for Washington at the end of a four-day trip to Latin America.

Mr. Flores said Mr. Bush proposed "a relationship of absolute respect, of dignity, with Latin America" something often promised but rarely delivered by U.S. leaders for the region.

If the trip was brief Mr. Bush spent about 5½ hours in El Salvador the fact that he came despite the U.S. preoccupation with terrorism and violence in the Middle East struck many here as important, as did his vow to push for a free-trade agreement with Central America as part of the drive to a hemispheric pact.

Speaking at a news conference with other Central American leaders after the visit, Mr. Flores said the mere proposal of free trade with the United States would draw investment to Central America.

"The announcement and the process of the treaty are already producing a positive attitude and are generating prosperity in our region," Mr. Flores said.

The themes of the Bush trip were very much like those of former President Clinton's trips to the region in 1997 and 1999: promotion of free trade and a celebration of a decade of peace in an area bloodied by civil wars in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Every leader that Mr. Clinton met in 1997 in Costa Rica is now gone all replaced by democratic elections in a region where coups and revolutions were common as part of the Cold War proxy battles between the United States and Soviet Union.

The United States, however, has balked at the free-trade appeals Central America has been making for years. Bush aides admitted that the president's new call a refinement of his father's proposed free-trade zone for the hemisphere did not mean free trade was at hand.

Mr. Bush skirted a commitment on a more immediate concern here proposals that would allow Central Americans to stay, one way or another, in the United States.

Without money sent home by the millions of Central Americans, many illegally in the United States, several countries in the region could face economic meltdown and a return to political turmoil.

Family remittances to El Salvador are equal to about 80 percent of the government budget. They equal half of all export revenues in neighboring Honduras.

But Mr. Bush hinted he would avoid drastic action, praising the benefits that the migrants brought to the U.S. and Central American economies.

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