WASHINGTON, March 25 (UPI) -- The United States and other nations hailed President George W. Bush's trip to Latin America a success despite the fact that any final trade deal is years away and may still face major hurdles both from other nations and with Washington lawmakers, experts and analysts told United Press International Monday.
Bush pushed an aggressive message of bilateral trade in his whirlwind, four-day, three-city tour to Mexico, Peru and El Salvador. He also culled support for the Free Trade Area of the Americas -- a pact that would open U.S. markets to all nations in both North and South America.
Officials in the region signalled optimism about the trip a day after Bush returned to the United States. But policy experts say Congress could be a serious stumbling block to Bush's pact to open U.S. markets.
Allan Wagner, Peru's ambassador to the United States, told a Lima radio station Monday that Bush's visit signaled a new foundation for relations between the two countries. Officials there also said U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Don Evan's planned trip to the region could spur an increase in exports.
Others said the trip was more symbolic. Bush's Peru stop, for example, was the first such visit by a sitting United States president.
"President Bush's trip was primarily of symbolic importance and was meant to be," said George Vickers, regional director of Latin American affairs for the Open Society Institute, a think tank founded by American businessman George Soros. "There were not new announcements, despite expectations."
Peter Hakim, president of the InterAmerican Dialogue, an independent Washington policy group, said the first part of Bush's two-part trip was clearly a success. At the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development, Bush announced new funding for development aid, which was matched by European countries.
But after the conference, the trip was not as robust in terms of concrete products, Hakim said.
"The rest of the trip was a bit sluggish. There were no real deliverables," Hakim said. "No new program announcements (were made) of any size, scope or originality."
What leaders in the region had expected, Hakim said, was for Bush to deliver a U.S. Senate vote on the Andean Trade Preferences Act, which he could not do.
The measure was signed into law in 1991, doubling U.S. imports from participating nations. It expired in December 2001. A bill to renew and expand the program passed the U.S. House of Representatives but has yet to clear the Senate. Vickers suggested the Andean nations might have fared better if they sought only a renewal and not an expansion of the pact.
"The United States House of Representatives has moved this legislation. It is stuck in the Senate, and I urge the Senate to act," Bush said while in Peru. During a meeting between Bush and leaders from Andean nations, one head of state accused the Senate of "'manana-ing' this (issue) to death."
Saying "manana," or "tomorrow," in Spanish, can mean something is not important enough to deal with immediately.
But on the whole, Hakim described the Central American region as unstable and unattractive to investment. He pointed to the collapse of Argentina's economy, continued brutal violence within Colombia that Hakim said had reached new levels of ruthlessness, and a polarized Venzuela which also remains unsettled. Those factors, he said, would make it difficult to get support for increased trade.
Policy experts say Bush faces a two-fold dilemma in advancing his hemispheric trade initiative. First, domestic politics will likely be a stumbling block since much opposition to the proposal remains in Congress. Second, Brazil and some of the other Latin American countries have been able to successively resist the effort, wanting instead, trade agreements with sub-regional blocks, Vickers said.
Democratic critics had suggested the trip pandered to Hispanic voters.
Hispanics in the United States now number more than 42.5 million and are the largest minority group, representing nearly 15 percent of the entire population. They are expected to represent a a key voting block in Bush's re-election campaign.