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Bush reaffirms commitment to free trade

In Peru for the annual APEC gathering, he says, 'We refuse to accept protectionism in the 21st century.'

November 23, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | McDonnell is a Times staff writer.

LIMA, PERU — President Bush on Saturday called on nations to embrace free trade, urging them to resist the temptation to resort to protectionism, even as turmoil races through the world's markets.

"One of the enduring lessons of the Great Depression is that global protectionism is a path to global economic ruin," Bush told an economic gathering here during his final scheduled foreign trip as president. "We refuse to accept protectionism in the 21st century."

Bush won a strong endorsement of his free-trade viewpoint from leaders of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The group, which represents about half of the world's annual economic output, agreed to a 12-month moratorium on new export restrictions and other barriers to trade.

"There is a risk that slower world growth could lead to calls for protectionist measures, which would only exacerbate the current economic situation," the APEC nations, including China, Russia and the United States, said in a statement.

Bush came to Peru seeking to bolster support for his plan to tame the global economic crisis. A week ago in Washington, he and other world leaders backed a plan of economic stimulus mixed with improved oversight and regulation. The APEC group said Saturday that it would "strongly support" the general guidelines outlined in Washington.

"Our nations must maintain confidence in the power of free markets," Bush told the gathering. "It's true the free-market system is not perfect. It can be subject to excesses and abuse. . . . Yet it is also essential that nations resist the temptation to over-correct by imposing regulations that would stifle innovation and choke off growth."

The president didn't have to twist many arms in this free-trade-friendly gathering, where a steady stream of chief executives spoke of the wonders of unfettered markets.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called renewed protectionism the "worst" that could happen, and representatives of Peru, China, South Korea and others urged nations to resist trade barriers.

Demonstrators who say that unrestricted free trade widens poverty have been kept well away from the heavily guarded military complex and hotels where APEC events are taking place.

Critics here say Peru's robust growth, spurred by exports of minerals and other commodities, has not trickled down to the poor and the working class. That kind of criticism is one reason that Peruvian President Alan Garcia, a committed free-trader who is hosting the annual summit, has seen his popularity ratings plummet to about 20%.

Bush has long placed trade at the top of his economic priority list, boasting that Washington now has free-trade agreements with 14 nations, compared with three when he took office nearly eight years ago. He said he was disappointed that Congress had adjourned without approving agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

In the case of Colombia, critics in Congress and elsewhere have cited the extrajudicial killings of labor leaders in that country as impediments to the free-trade accord. President-elect Barack Obama has also noted those killings when asked about the stalled pact with Colombia.

On another front, White House officials said Bush announced minor progress in the contentious ongoing negotiations about North Korean nuclear disarmament. The six nations involved in talks have agreed to meet in December in China, said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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