SAN SALVADOR — 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 here, 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, the president lauded 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 claimed tens of thousands of lives, with both sides accused of serious human rights violations.
Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security advisor, said Bush wanted to stop in El Salvador to "celebrate a region that, I think, 10, 15 years ago nobody would have given a chance to be living at peace, to be democratic, to have presidents who are interested in pressing the free market."
Bush also wanted to come to promote what Rice called "the next phase" in U.S.-Central American relations: an agreement that would not only foster trade between the U.S. and the nations of this region but also break down trade barriers among the Central American countries.
"We often forget that one of the problems for developing countries is that they tend to have high trade barriers between countries, as well as trying to enter the markets of developed countries," Rice said.
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 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 hemispheric free-trade bloc.
On immigration, another key issue for Latin American governments, Bush had hoped the Senate would have passed a bill by now to make it easier for certain illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to obtain visas. But that measure, too, is stalled.
Instead, the president announced an array of initiatives that require little, if any, new funding commitments, such as a return of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to Peru after a 27-year hiatus. In Mexico, he and President Vicente Fox announced a mutual commitment to encourage business investments in rural Mexico.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Sunday that disbursing dollars was never Bush's intention for the trip. Rather, he said, the president's aim was to show U.S. support for Latin America--one of Bush's top priorities before Sept. 11.
"The purpose of this trip is to show a unified nation with unified policies in an atmosphere of hope and optimism," Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One as it flew from Lima to San Salvador.
Accompanied by First Lady Laura Bush, the president was accorded a red-carpet, 21-gun-salute welcoming ceremony at Comalapa International Airport here. He then talked with Flores. The two leaders last met in Washington, just two months after Bush took office.
After their news conference, Bush and Flores were joined for lunch by the leaders of Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama.
As the top officials met, thousands of peasants, union workers and students marched peacefully elsewhere in the capital to protest the proposed free trade between Central America and the U.S. as an exploitation of cheap labor.
"I see a free-trade agreement as a fight between a trussed-up donkey and a free lion," said Margarita Posada, one of the march organizers. "They come to offer us roads, modern airports and ports just to transport goods to big multinational companies."
Before Bush arrived in El Salvador on Sunday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters that during the president's stop in Peru, officials from both nations discussed plans to resume interdiction flights against drug smugglers over Peru.
The CIA-backed program was stopped a year ago after an American missionary and her infant daughter were killed when a Peruvian military jet shot down the plane they were in. Their single-engine aircraft was mistakenly identified as a possible drug-smuggling plane.
"We want to restart these air interdiction flights, let there be no doubt about that," Powell said aboard Air Force One while en route from Lima to San Salvador. Although Powell did not cite a specific date, he said, "I don't expect this to linger too much longer."
On the final day of his Latin America visit, Bush appeared upbeat--notwithstanding sharp criticism from Democrats over the weekend that the trip was a cynical ploy to woo Latino voters back home.
On Saturday, speaking for Democrats in their weekly radio address, former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa called Bush's trip "part of an orchestrated strategy to curry favor with Latino voters."
Bush said he was "disappointed" by Villaraigosa's remarks.