- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

During his visit to El Salvador on Sunday, President Bush made a valiant pledge to push hard for a free-trade agreement between the United States and Central America and then he hedged. While he upheld trade as the antidote to poverty, Mr. Bush also said he couldn't reduce the agricultural subsidies and tariffs that affect the region's main exports due to congressional opposition. Well, did he try?

If Mr. Bush is unwilling to challenge Congress to allow the globe's poorest nations the opportunity to export the goods they can most competitively produce, then a congressional victory on this front becomes a foregone conclusion. This is a shame, because Mr. Bush's trip to Latin America highlighted how dire some of the region's problems are becoming.

Just three days before Mr. Bush landed in Peru, a bomb exploded in that country, killing nine. The bomb attack was most likely waged by narco-terrorists, who are increasingly entrenched in the region. Furthermore, the poor prospects for economic growth in Latin America this year, due in part to a slow-down in the U.S. economy, will hit Central America particularly hard because it has more limited resources.

Free trade won't be a miracle salve for the narco-trafficking, terrorism and poverty that is plaguing the region. But freer trade on the exports that really matter will provide countries with an opportunity to empower themselves. Latin America's problems have a way of affecting America as well. Most of the region's drug production lands in the United States.

Still, many Democrats in Congress have equally revealed their myopia regarding Latin America. They have consistently opposed the free-trade deals Mr. Bush supports at least rhetorically. And while Mr. Bush was touring the region, they exposed their cynical belief that the only reason for engaging Latin America is political gain. Mr. Bush's trip was "part of an orchestrated strategy to curry favor with Latin voters in the United States," said Antonio Villaraigosa, the former speaker of the California State Assembly, revealing more about his own machinations than the president's mindset.

Regrettably, Mr. Bush has not done enough to distinguish himself from the Democrats who put special-interests above the principles of free trade. While Mr. Bush's support of a free-trade agreement with Central America is certainly a positive step, it will have little substantive value if it fails to include the region's key exports.

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