Bush meets Calderon, Harper amid tough trade talk from Democrats

( dpa ) - US President George W Bush was to meet with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts Monday as a testy election season has put a negative spotlight on the three countries' free trade deal.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have strongly attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for hurting the US economy, and are unlikely to lay off with an upcoming primary in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were to meet separately with Bush in New Orleans, Louisiana on Monday. A joint and private dinner would be held in the evening followed by more talks on Tuesday.

The three leaders were expected to defend NAFTA and the lowering of trade barriers, while immigration and securing US borders is also likely to be a top issue of the regional summit.

Obama and Clinton have both said they will renegotiate NAFTA if elected to include stiffer environmental and labour standards.

The Democratic-led Congress has also delayed the passage of a free trade deal with Colombia and threatened to derail it until 2009 unless the Bush administration agrees to new programmes to stem the loss of US manufacturing jobs.

Democrats are also demanding that Colombia provide better protection to trade unionists, after multiple murders and beatings of union leaders in Colombia.

Dan Fisk, director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, said the leaders would also discuss Cuba, where Raul Castro formally took over power from his brother and long-time leader Fidel earlier this year.

But Fisk denied that the three were likely to agree on a unified policy. The Bush administration hopes to nudge the Caribbean island toward democracy in the wake of Fidel Castro's departure but has refused to lift a long-time US trade embargo until it sees more drastic changes in policy.

Bush, Harper and Calderon will issue a joint statement and hold a press conference on Tuesday. It is Bush's last North American summit before he leaves office in January 2009.

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