SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – President Bush on Sunday held out the promise of expanded trade to Central American nations, saying countries once decimated by civil war now deserve jobs as a reward for the way they have "changed old ways and have found new wealth and new freedom."
Bush paid a six-hour visit here — his first ever, he said — to discuss the possibilities of a Central American trade pact with Salvadoran President Francisco Flores and other leaders from the region. The sessions closed out a four-day tour of Latin America in which Bush pushed open markets, anti-terrorism efforts and more foreign aid money for developing nations that flush out corruption.
Bush also pledged Sunday to pursue a trade agreement for all the Americas and promote immigration policies that would establish temporary protective status for some immigrants whose visas have expired. He also promised to increase to $100 million, from $67 million, the assistance to help El Savador's recovery from two earthquakes in early 2001.
Over lunch with the leaders of El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama, Bush said he wants to get Congress energized behind the regional trade proposal he submitted in January, even though the matter, for now, is "at the working level," said White House spokesman Sean McCormack.
Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Sunday that no Central American trade deal is likely soon. The administration has a number of trade agreements lined up and is trying to craft them into one trade policy before getting into trade talks, he said.
"He'll want to hear from the leaders ... and then we'll take those messages back, as we structure our overall trade policy," Powell said.
Bush noted that millions of Salvadorans living in the United States are propping up El Salvador's economy by sending nearly $2 billion a year back to their families. He suggested that more trade would give these workers the option of finding employment in their native land that pays enough to sustain a high quality of life.
"Trade means jobs," Bush said. "Trade means people who want to work are more likely to find jobs in both countries."
Flores agreed. "The only way to come out of poverty is through work," he said. Just the fact that Bush expressed a desire for a trade pact "will cause investors to approach our countries to be in the region when the treaty takes effect," he said.
Even as they spoke, the newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported polls Sunday that showed more than half of Salvadorans would like to move to the United States. Peaceful protesters took to the streets to decry U.S. economic and cultural outreach as a corrosive presence in Salvadoran society — and to pay homage to late Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a critic of government repression who was assassinated 22 years ago Sunday.
As much as Bush advocated knocking down trade barriers, he also faced criticism that he has erected two new ones, in the form of tariffs on imported steel and Canadian softwood lumber. The administration said the tariffs were imposed due to unfair trading practices. They also make it easier politically for some lawmakers to give him more authority to negotiate trade agreements.
Bush said he envisions strong ties of "commerce and culture and kinship" with Central America, building on relations with El Salvador. Regional leaders already have responded with finance ministers meetings in Washington, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
"Many countries in this region have changed old ways and have found new wealth and new freedom," Bush said. "In this coming decade, El Salvador and the United States, and nations throughout this hemisphere, are committed to maintaining and extending this progress. Greater trade can help us accomplish this goal."
Democrats have accused Bush of making the Latin American trip to pander to Hispanic voters.
Bush said he was disappointed by the criticism. "When I first got elected, I said the best foreign policy for the United States is to have a prosperous, peaceful and free neighborhood," he said.
Flores and his wife, Lourdes, met Bush and first lady Laura Bush upon their arrival here. Bush embraced Flores and kissed his wife.
He praised El Salvador as "one of the really bright lights in Latin America," primarily because its people managed to turn their country around within a decade, despite the twin devastation of civil war and earthquakes."
"For millions of Salvadorans, violence was a daily reality, and prosperity was just a distant dream. Today, El Salvador is at peace," Bush said. "It is one of the freest and strongest and most stable countries in our hemisphere."