Bush Declares Free Markets Are Essential for Americas
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 — President Bush invited Central American nations
tonight to strike a separate trade accord with the United
States and cautioned Argentina against using the country's economic crisis as an excuse to backtrack on free-market reforms or return to
an era of protectionism.
Mr. Bush's speech at the headquarters here of the Organization of American
States was intended, his aides said, to demonstrate that despite
making counterterrorism the new focus of his foreign policy, he has not turned back on the central foreign policy commitment he made last year: A
new focus on the Western Hemisphere.
But Mr. Bush used the occasion to send a strong message to the new president
of Argentina, Eduardo Duhalde, who more than once in the past
two weeks has suggested that the American led "model" of economic development — particularly rapid market openings and deregulation —
contributed to Argentina's economic crisis.
Without naming Mr. Duhalde, save for a brief word of praise for the
new president, Mr. Bush said that "Argentina — and nationals throughout
hemisphere — need to strengthen our commitment to market-based reform, not weaken it."
"Shortcuts to reform only lead to more trouble," he said. "Half-measures will not halve the pain, only prolong it."
Mr. Bush's economic and security advisers would not say this evening what "half-measures" he was referring to, but it seemed obvious.
While Argentina has abandoned pegging its currency to the dollar, a
policy that kept inflation in check but badly hurt the competitiveness
Argentina's products — Mr. Duhalde has created a two-tiered exchange rate that is designed to inflict pain on major banks and investors, not the
public. It is unclear whether that is sustainable.
He has also declared a moratorium on the repayment of public debt, which
is bound to scare away any investors who did not flee when the country
was sinking deeper into trouble.
And while Mr. Duhalde has talked about the need for fiscal discipline,
he has not yet said how he will deal with a huge budget deficit. Cutting
government spending is likely to reignite rioting that has already been rampant through the crisis.
The International Monetary Fund agreed today to delay, for one year,
a loan repayment of $933 million, due for repayment on Thursday. While
United States voted for the delay, and touted that as a sign of support for the country, the reality was that Argentina is in no position to pay the
money, and has already defaulted on other loans.
When Mr. Bush met with Latin American leaders in Canada early last year,
at one of the first big summit meetings of his presidency, there was little
public questioning of the value of American-style economic reform measures. But tonight Mr. Bush felt that the pendulum had swung far enough that
he had to note that "some are questioning the path to prosperity. Some wonder whether free market reforms are too painful to continue. Some
question the fairness of free and open trade, holding out the false comfort of protectionism."
But he argued that countries that "stay on the hard road of reform are
rewarded," ticking off Chile's success in cutting poverty, and Mexico's
recovery from the 1995 economic crisis. He noted that the United States had "made a mistaken and failed experiment with wage and price
controls" in the 1970's, without mentioning that the plans had been devised by Republican presidents.
Mr. Bush also said that he would seek a free trade accord with the countries
of Central America — Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala,
Honduras and Nicaragua. Because these are the smaller nations in the region, administration officials believe that they will be the easiest negotiating
partners for an accord — and that any regional agreement will prompt Argentina and Brazil, both much larger economies, to follow suit.
A new "Free Trade Area of the Americas" is scheduled to be negotiated
by 2005, and if it is successful it would essentially extend NAFTA
throughout the hemisphere.
But meeting that ambitious schedule may depend on Argentina's recovery.
So far, Argentinian and Brazilian officials have said in recent weeks that
they see relatively little potential benefit for their countries in a hemispheric accord.