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Bush's trip does little to advance agenda, improve U.S. image

PANAMA CITY, Panama—President Bush wrapped up a Latin American tour Monday, failing to revive a hemispheric free-trade plan and facing thousands of protesters in a region where he had hoped to improve America's image.

Bush returned to Washington Monday evening from Panama City, where he listened to Panamanian President Martin Torrijos complain that U.S. efforts to remove buried unexploded U.S. ordnance from his land were insufficient. The chemical weapons and bombs, which may contain deadly mustard gas, date back to World War II, when Panamanian soil was used as a top-secret U.S. military testing ground.

Panamanian officials maintain that the United States is responsible for removing the ordnance under a 1993 international chemical-weapons convention that both countries signed.

"We had obligations under the treaty, and we felt like we met those obligations," Bush said during a news conference with Torrijos. "There is a difference of opinion. And so we have a disagreement that we will continue to discuss."

Bush's session with Torrijos was like all of his stops along his five-day, three-country tour of the region. He had cordial but brutally frank talks with leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Panama that produced little in terms of concrete policy or advancing his agenda.

In the end, Bush couldn't get the Summit of the Americas to endorse a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, a trade zone that would stretch from Alaska to Chile. The summit ended with the 34 member nations unable to agree on whether to continue talks on the proposal.

"President Bush did not do well," said Bruce Bagley, an international studies professor at the University of Miami. "He received an underwhelming reception both on U.S. security and trade issues. His leadership has clearly been weakened."

Administration officials disagree with that assessment. Though Bush didn't advance FTAA or persuade Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to drop his country's resistance to the plan, he did build an informal consensus toward keeping trade-zone talks alive.

"Very quietly, Bush got an endorsement of 29 of the 34 Summit of the Americas countries," said Eduardo Gamarra, the director of Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center. "He met with presidents from Central America Free Trade Agreement-Dominican Republic countries and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to CAFTA. So I'm a little hesitant to say this was all a defeat for Bush."

Bagley said he disagrees with the general view in the Latin American press that Bush's FTAA setback was a big victory for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the anti-Bush leftist populist who said he attended the summit to kill and bury the FTAA and Washington's economic policies.

"If the administration is capable of putting together a better deal on the FTAA, particularly on agricultural issues, they can get greater Latin American support for U.S. leadership on free trade," Bagley said.

Bush also made little evident headway toward a key second-term goal: improving his and America's image in Latin America.

Polls in the region conducted prior to the weekend summit showed Bush is wildly unpopular, largely because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Thousands of protesters greeted him during the summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and a small number of demonstrators shadowed his stop in Brasilia.

"The deck is completely stacked against him," Gamarra said, citing discontent with Bush's policies on Iraq and Cuba. "It will take more than visiting Lula and attending a summit to fix that. I don't think he's going to be able to do it ... ."

But he's trying.

Bush played tourist Monday for the first time on his tour. He visited the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal and briefly manned the controls, allowing a ship to pass through.

Afterward, he went to a baseball diamond and tossed a ball around with some Panamanian youths. He was joined by a group of current and retired Panamanian-born major league players, including New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Bruce Chen and former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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