Bush Seeks Free Trade With Latin America

President Bush has talked about free trade with Western Hemisphere leaders, but the comments follow an address to the U.N. General Assembly by Bolivian President Evo Morales, who decried capitalism as the worst friend of humanity.

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Yesterday, President Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly. And today, before heading back to Washington, he sat down with some Latin American leaders to talk trade. His meeting comes at a troubled time for relations with Latin America. The U.S. is in a diplomatic dispute with Bolivia and Venezuela, and there are serious concerns about the Bush administration's emphasis on trade and economic reform, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Even during a time of turmoil on Wall Street, President Bush kept to his script supporting free trade in the Western Hemisphere as a way to bring countries out of poverty.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: What's interesting about free and fair trade amongst the nations is that the people benefit.

KELEMEN: Among those in the meeting was Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, who also met with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The Bush administration has tried hard to get a free-trade agreement with Colombia through Congress as a way to shore up a key ally in the region, but achieving that anytime soon seems unlikely, and the administration's overall policy in the region has run into new troubles. Bolivian President Evo Morales told the U.N. General Assembly last night why he recently kicked out the U.S. ambassador. He spoke through an interpreter.

President EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Through Translator) In Bolivia, right-wing groups are setting fire to gas pipelines. They are cutting off the routes for the export of gas to Brazil and Argentina. But the government of the United States and their ambassador does not condemn these acts of terrorism.

KELEMEN: The former U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg, says Morales just uses the U.S. as a foil, a distraction from his problems at home. South African leaders huddled today at the U.N. to try to help Bolivia resolve its internal power struggle between Morales' left-wing government and conservative opposition figures. Morales, through the interpreter, called it a struggle between capitalism and socialism.

President MORALES: (Through Translator) I have realized as president that capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity.

KELEMEN: Paraguay's president, Fernando Lugo, also took aim at market reforms, which he says have only increased the gap between rich and poor. He's a former Roman Catholic priest who recently came to office, and through an interpreter showed support for Bolivia.

President FERNANDO LUGO (Paraguay): (Through Translator) This new government has been proactive in this historic show of solidarity among peoples and among the democratic peoples of Latin America in responding rapidly to defend democratically elected governments, as is the case of the sister Republic of Bolivia.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration said recently that Bolivia has failed to cooperate in the war on drugs, and the relationship shows no signs of getting better anytime soon. So regional players are stepping in, even friends of the U.S., like Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet. She told the General Assembly today that her commitment to free and fair societies drove her to come to the aid of a friendly democracy. She, too, spoke through an interpreter.

President MICHELLE BACHELET (Chile): (Through Translator) One week ago, when there was a threat to disrupt democratic institutional order in the Republic of Bolivia, the nations of South America offered support to the legitimately elected authorities together with condemnation of rebellion and bloodshed.

KELEMEN: One of the most outspoken supporters of Bolivia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is skipping this year's General Assembly. He's in China signing business deals. And he told reporters there that in the face of what he called the collapse of global capitalism, it's fortunate that China had a revolution and Venezuela did, too. He's tried to push a very different agenda in the Western Hemisphere, causing problems not only for the Bush administration, but also for the next U.S. president. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations.

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