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Antonio Saca, El Salvador?s president, has vigorously criticised what he calls ?socialist experiments? in Latin America and mounted a spirited defence of free trade as the best way to ensure the region?s development.

Speaking in an interview with the FT, Mr Saca said that Latin America?s swing to the left ?worries me because it destroys liberties?.

His comments come as several governments in the region, most notably those of Bolivia and Venezuela, are implementing increasingly radical leftwing policies.

Last month, President Evo Morales of Bolivia seized foreign-owned gas fields, honouring a campaign pledge to nationalise the sector. And Hugo Ch?vez, the Venezuelan president, recently confirmed his intention to pull out of the Group of Three, a trade liberalisation agreement between Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico.

?Socialist experiments, state experiments end up bankrupting countries,? said Mr Saca. ?We [in El Salvador] have already lived through it. We had an agricultural reform that was a disaster, we had a state takeover of the banks which was mired in corruption. The state should be small but strong. It should not get in the way.?

Mr Saca, of the centre-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), said political changes in Bolivia, for example, were not the best option for growth and development.

?I have to respect [the results of Bolivia?s recent elections]. But you are asking me my opinion about whether I believe in that [model]; I don?t?.?.?.?I believe in open economies, in free trade. I believe in justice.?

He also criticised Mr Ch?vez?s policies of selling cheap fuel to sympathetic governments in the region, including local administrations in El Salvador that are controlled by the opposition FMLN party.

While admitting that accords between Mr Ch?vez and the FMLN were ?not surprising?, he said they represented a ?clear interference in the internal affairs of the country?.

Mr Saca, whose administration has been a driving force behind the Central American Free Trade Agreement between countries in the region and the US, cited his country?s progress.

Since the tiny Central American country of just 6.8m became the first to implement Cafta two months ago, exports have grown 12 per cent, according to the president. Meanwhile, the economy is set to grow 3.5 per cent this year, compared with 2.8 per cent in 2005.

?We have broken the cycle of slow growth,? he said, attributing such achievements to the liberal policies pursued by four consecutive Arena administrations since 1989.

Mr Saca even expressed optimism over the future of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Although the FTAA has met with fierce resistance from some countries in the region, Mr Saca argued that most had either already agreed a trade deal with the US or were negotiating one.

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