- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — President Bush and his Mexican and Canadian counterparts yesterday directly challenged talk by Democratic presidential candidates of pulling out of a trade agreement among the three countries.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon released the strongest criticism. He said a withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would “condemn North America as a region to complete backwardness.”

“If you were to take a step backwards with regard to NAFTA or free trade, you would be condemning Americans to have one of the least competitive economies in the developed world, while other parts of the world are accelerating their growth,” Mr. Calderon said, mentioning the consolidated trade bloc of China, India, Japan and the European Union.

The Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, were not mentioned by name, but were in focus during the summit on the day of the Pennsylvania primary.

“Now is not the time to renegotiate NAFTA or walk away from NAFTA,” Mr. Bush said. “Now is the time to make it work better for all our people. And now is the time to reduce trade barriers worldwide.”

He pounded the podium several times and pronounced himself “concerned about protectionism in America.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the benefits of the trade agreement are unquestionable.

“I’m confident that when the facts are looked at, any president … will quickly conclude how critically important NAFTA [is] to jobs and prosperity on both sides of our border,” Mr. Harper said.

Both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, campaigning in states hit hard by job losses and a weakened economy, have pledged to renegotiate NAFTA.

The Democrats blame economic problems on trade and immigration, but the actions of top aides have called their motives into question.

A policy adviser to Mr. Obama reportedly told Canadian officials that Mr. Obama’s rhetoric did not reflect his intentions. A senior Clinton aide was found to be advising the Colombian government on how to advance a free-trade agreement with Colombia, in his role as a paid lobbyist.

Mr. Bush denied that the U.S. economy is in a recession, although analysts have declared one of the nation’s worst economic periods in many years.

“We’re not in a recession. We’re in a slowdown,” Mr. Bush said. “We grew in the fourth quarter last year.”

The summit marked the fourth consecutive year that the leaders of North American countries met to discuss ways to improve cross-border transportation and commerce in the context of post-Sept. 11 security. Mr. Harper expressed frustration over security measures that make it more difficult for Canadians to travel to the U.S.

Mr. Bush tried to counter the growing protectionist sentiment among both parties in Congress, and criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, for changing rules to block a vote on the Colombia free-trade agreement.

Mrs. Pelosi responded by saying, “The American people want solutions on the economy and less partisan rhetoric from the president.”

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