U.S. Seeks to Advance Free-Trade Agreements

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Bush met yesterday with leaders of five Central American nations to push ahead free-trade talks with the region.

Mr. Bush's top trade negotiator meanwhile expressed disappointment with Chile, another potential free-trade partner, for not supporting the U.S.-led war against Iraq. Despite Chile's lack of political support, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said he expects the president "ultimately" to sign a free-trade agreement with that nation.

The presidents of the five Central American countries - Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua - told Mr. Bush the deal will be important to lift their countries out of poverty.

The Bush administration is hoping to open markets and lock in government reforms in the relatively poor countries, while adding momentum to hemisphere trade negotiations.

"This is more than a trade agreement. It's about development; it's about democracy; it's about opportunity and it's about hope," Mr. Zoellick told reporters.

The five presidents and their trade ministers met with Mr. Bush and members of his administration, as well as members of the House and Senate, who must approve the deal.

Mr. Zoellick said that the president is strongly committed to Central America and the free-trade deal.

Progress after three rounds of talks has been excellent, he said.

As a bloc, the five countries exported almost $11.9 billion to the United States and imported $9.8 billion in U.S. goods during 2002.

Electronics, apparel, fabrics, agricultural goods and oil are the most heavily traded goods between the five countries and the United States, with agricultural goods and textiles potentially the most controversial for negotiators. …