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Bush ends Latin trip on free trade note

President Bush ended his four-day Latin America visit Sunday in much the same way he began it, touting democracy and free trade as he made a final stop in El Salvador. But he also lashed back at Democrats who had criticized his trip as an effort to pander to Latinos back home, calling the attack "petty politics."

At a joint news conference with Salvadoran President Francisco Flores after their private meeting, Bush said that he has long been committed to free trade and that promoting it was a central mission of his visits to Monterrey, Mexico; Lima, Peru; and the Salvadoran capital.

"When I first got elected, I said the best foreign policy for the United States is to have a prosperous, peaceful and free neighborhood. . . . And my long-standing interest in Mexico and Central America is well-known," Bush said.

"And sometimes in Washington, D.C., people cannot get rid of old habits, which is petty politics."

As he did at his earlier stops, Bush praised his host nation's progress toward democracy and free markets, calling El Salvador "one of the really great stories of economic and political transformation of our time."

This nation of 6.2-million, which suffered through four decades of repressive military rule until the 1970s, is rebuilding itself after a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. The fighting killed tens of thousands, with both sides accused of violating human rights.

Bush also wanted to promote what Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, called "the next phase" in U.S.-Central American relations: a trade agreement that would not only foster trade between the United States and the nations of this region but also break down trade barriers among the Central American countries themselves.

Although Bush strongly touted free trade at each stop, the president came bearing few tangible plans. He has been unable to get the Senate to renew the Andean Trade Preference Act, which exempts a number of Andean products from U.S. tariffs; it expired in December.

The president also supports a similar measure for Central America, but progress has been slow on that front as well. Bush envisions the Andean Trade Act and a similar Central American measure as building blocks for a future hemispheric free trade bloc.

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