Bush calls trade with Americas 'essential' in Miami speech

Doreen Hemlock
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Sunday October 14, 2007

President Bush on Friday urged Congress to approve free trade agreements with three Latin American nations, calling the accords "essential" for the U.S. economy and national security and "important" for U.S. moral interests.

Failure to approve agreements reached after long negotiations would send a signal that Washington will not uphold its commitments to allies and would damage U.S. credibility, Bush told more than 500 people in Miami. He asked the group — most involved in international business in an area dubbed the "Gateway to the Americas" — to make its voice heard, as Congress debates pacts with Peru, Panama and Colombia.

"I think the case for trade is unmistakable in Miami," Bush said, citing faster economic growth and lower unemployment rates in South Florida than the U.S average. "Trade yields prosperity, and prosperity means more people will likely be able to find a job."

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But Democrats in Congress immediately drew distinctions among the three deals, citing concerns over differing labor standards.

Rep. Sander Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the House subcommittee on trade, said Friday from Washington that while Peru has acted to strengthen worker rights, Colombia needs to do more to end violence against its labor leaders and punish those responsible.

Bush — and a bipartisan panel who spoke before him — said Colombia is boosting efforts to curb that violence. But denying free trade would only worsen its woes by blocking chances to spur the economy and undermining the pro-trade government there.

"What's the best way to solve these problems? It's not by walking away," Susan K. Purcell, director of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy, said in the pro-trade panel before Bush's 25-minute speech. "It's by getting more engaged."

South Florida has more at stake than any other U.S. region in the trade debate. The area from Key West to Fort Pierce posted a record $72 billion in goods traded with foreign ports last year, mainly with Latin America. Greater U.S. trade with Peru, Panama and Colombia stands to benefit South Florida ports most. The trade also is likely to spur jobs for accountants, media and other services, studies show.

U.S. labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, have criticized free-trade deals for spurring U.S. companies to move jobs overseas. Labor support is key, as Democrats seek to maintain control of Congress and win the White House in the coming election year.

But Bush and other free-trade supporters insist more open trade creates more U.S. jobs by boosting American sales in growing economies abroad. U.S. exports to Mexico, Chile and Central American nations have jumped after free-trade deals took effect. And U.S. workers displaced in less competitive industries can be re-trained for growing U.S. industries, with U.S. government assistance, Bush said.

Before his speech, Bush met privately with Cuban-American leaders for about 40 minutes. He also addressed the future of the communist-led nation in his public remarks, urging a release of political prisoners and "free and competitive elections" there. Many Cuban-Americans in the audience erupted in applause and a stood up, marking the only major interruption during the speech.

Earlier in the day, Bush attended a GOP fundraiser at the Pinellas Park waterfront home of Brent Sembler, the son of Mel Sembler, a former U.S. ambassador to Italy and a longtime GOP moneymaker. The event raised an estimated $1 million for the Republican National Committee, The Associated Press reported.

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