Bush to negotiate trade with Latin America

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PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) – After meeting resistance during three days of Latin America trade talks, President Bush finally gets a chance to negotiate Monday with an enthusiastic partner in Panamanian President Martin Torrijos.

Thirty-four countries failed to reach agreement on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, during a weekend summit in Argentina, but Bush’s first visit to Panama represents what has been his multitrack strategy for opening up world markets.

While the FTAA is stalled and worldwide trade talks are embroiled in thorny issues of farm subsidies, the president has set his sights on individual countries that are eager to do business with the United States, the world’s largest economic power.

Torrijos is a proponent of free trade and his country is in talks with the U.S. on a bilateral pact. Torrijos was a leader in trying to move along negotiations for the FTAA at the weekend talks.

Central America is proving to be one of Bush’s biggest success stories. The Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, was recently ratified by Congress in a narrow vote after tough lobbying by the White House.

Panama is not a part of CAFTA because Bush negotiated that pact with a pre-existing trading bloc of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

“CAFTA is important, and it makes sense for Panama to be considered to be a part of these trading agreements that are growing,” Bush said last week in a preview of his trip.

The president could look forward a much warmer reception in Panama than in Argentina, the first stop on his Latin American tour.

White House aides said going into the Panama talks that they did not expect to leave with a completed agreement. But they said Bush was expected to make more progress with Torrijos in their one-on-one meeting than he did a visit Sunday with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brasilia.

Bush came out of their meeting saying that although Silva wanted to work on worldwide trade, he still needed to be convinced that an agreement in the Western Hemisphere would be a job creator for Brazil.

Other topics on the agenda for Bush’s meeting with Torrijos included drug trafficking and the Panama Canal, which could undergo a nearly $10 billion expansion if Panamanian voters approve the project.

The United States opened the canal in 1914 to help ships avoid a long trip around the southern tip of South America. The U.S. also built military bases on the Canal Zone to serve strategic military purposes in the region.

Under treaties signed in 1977 by President Carter and Panama’s Gen. Omar Torrijos _ the current president’s father _ the United States handed over control of the canal and the surrounding zone on Dec. 31, 1999.

The U.S. still is the largest user of the canal, which Bush planned to tour. Fourteen percent of U.S. exports and imports, as well as 4 percent of the world’s trade, pass through it.

But 10 percent of the world’s ships today are unable to navigate the narrow waterway. Canal authorities say its expansion would help it remain the fastest and easiest shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Many worry, however, that the project will mean too much debt for this small country. The Bush administration’s position has been that whether to expand the canal is a decision for the Panamanian people.

While in Panama, Bush and his wife, Laura, also planned to lay a wreath at the Corozal American Cemetery, where nearly 5,200 canal workers and U.S. service members are buried. Also on their schedule was a visit with Panamanian baseball players from the major leagues and about 100 young players.