PANAMA CITY (EFE) – With theblessing of his Panamanian hosts, U.S.President George W. Bush “retook” controlof the Panama Canal for a few minutes onMonday.The Panama Canal, which was controlledby the United States from 1914 to1999, was turned over to Panama in 1999under the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.The canal, which is at the center ofPanamanian history, is the country’s mostprofitable enterprise and a symbol ofnational identity.FOR almost 45 minutes, a smilingBush toured the canal installations inMiraflores, on the Pacific side, with hiswife, Laura, Panamanian President MartínTorrijos and Panama’s first lady, VivianFernández.After arriving at the locks, Bush went tothe control tower, which regulates trafficthrough the inter-oceanic waterway, throughwhich 4% of the world’s trade passes.The U.S. president examined the controlpanel, which was made by the GeneralElectric Co. The original control panel, inuse since the canal’s inauguration in 1914,is “unique in the world” and still functions,Alemán said.Bush then had an opportunity to workthe controls and operate the gates on theMiraflores locks.EARLIER in the day, Bush, afterbeing stymied in efforts to jump-startstalled hemispheric free-trade negotiationsat a regional summit, said Washington andPanama were close to sealing a bilateraltrade pact.Bush met with Torrijos in PanamaCity, the last stop on a Latin Americantour that took him to Brazil andArgentina, where he participated in theSummit of the Americas.In a joint press conference Bush saidthe countries had nearly sealed the free tradedeal, which he characterized as“important for America.”“We just got to continue to work andget (the agreement) done,” said Bush, whoacknowledged that the task of approvingthe pact in the U.S. Congress would be anarduous one. “One area that we need tomake progress on is with the DemocratParty” in Congress, he said.DESPITE the warm welcome hereceived from Torrijos, demonstratorsprotested Bush’s presence in the country,as protesters in Argentina and Brazil haddone over the weekend.Hundreds of people marched and setfire to tires in Panama City’s El Chorrilloneighborhood, which was destroyed duringthe December 1989 invasionlaunched by Bush’s father, then-PresidentGeorge H.W. Bush.The U.S. Congress in July of this yearapproved a trade deal with five CentralAmerican nations and the DominicanRepublic (CAFTA) by a margin of just twovotes, after the Bush administrationstepped up pressure on lawmakers.FOR his part, Torrijos said a free-tradeagreement would result in “advantages andopportunities” for the two countries.Negotiations on a U.S.-Panama tradedeal have been stalled since February dueto disagreements over U.S. access to agriculturalmarkets, government procurementissues and the United States’ ability to participatein canal expansion projects.The United States is Panama’s maintrade partner and foreign investor, withmore than $20 billion invested, mostly inthe financial sector.DURING last weekend’s summit in Mardel Plata, Argentina, five countries – thenations of the southern South Americantrade bloc Mercosur (Brazil, Argentina,Uruguay and Paraguay) and Venezuela –rejected a proposal supported by the UnitedStates and 28 other governments to relaunchtalks on a hemispheric trade pact byApril of next year.The Mercosur countries argued that itmade no sense to proceed with the FreeTrade Area of the Americas (FTAA) talksuntil the results of the WTO’s Doha roundnegotiations next month in Hong Kongwere in. Led by Brazil, developing nationsare demanding that the United States, aswell as the European Union, reduce agriculturalsubsidies as part of the WTO talks.Panama proposed a compromise,whereby the FTAA talks – stalled for twoyears – would resume sometime in 2006.No agreement was reached, however, andthe final declaration merely stated the twoopposing positions.ALSO in the Panama City press conference,Torrijos mentioned the possibleexpansion of the canal to allow passageof Asian-built petroleum supertankers.Those expansion plans will be subject toa national referendum.“I think it is wise for the government toconsider modernizing the canal,” Bushsaid in a slight shift in the U.S. stance.Prior to Monday, Washington had said onlythat it was up to Panamanians to decidewhether to expand the waterway.Bush and Torrijos emphasized the countries’strong ties, but acknowledged that disagreementremained over demands that theUnited States clear unexploded ordnancefrom jungle firing ranges near the canal. TheUnited States left mortar rounds, grenadesand other ordnance behind when it handedover control of the waterway.See The Tico Times for more on theSummit of the Americas.