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Miami Conference Focused On Caribbean And Central America
Miami vies for top FTAA position, while nations stress urgency of trade agreements
By JOHN COLLINS
December 23, 2004
MiamiTwo themes dominated the recently held Miami Conference on the Caribbean Basinthe proposed Dominican Republic (D.R.)-Central American Free Trade Agreement (D.R.-Cafta), and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Hours before the conference got underway, Guatemalas President Oscar Berger openly threw his support behind Miamis efforts to snare the position of permanent secretariat of the FTAA.
"We are offering this support publicly at this moment," said Berger in a press conference with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The Guatemalan leader described Miami as a place where Guatemalans like to visit and do business.
Guatemala joins the D.R., Honduras, Nicaragua, and Uruguay as an endorser of Miamis bid for the secretariat, with Costa Ricas support contingent on Port of Spain, Trinidad, dropping out. Trinidad currently has 16 endorsements. A San Juan candidacy was never mentioned during the conference.
The delay in implementing the FTAA, expected to miss its 2006 deadline, in addition to complications stemming from disagreements between the U.S. and Brazil, also has set back the selection of the secretariat.
"We have to have the FTAA before we can have a secretariat," said Gov. Bush. He added that "the first step to all of this is Cafta, because the Central American countries combined are Floridas No. 1 trade partner. Thats why its tremendously important for us to get Cafta passed."
Berger cited among the reasons for supporting Miami is the citys "proximity, the ease of [its] transportation, its experience in trade negotiations, and because the U.S. is our largest trade partner."
Bush also pledged to introduce a bill in the Florida Legislature that would allow immigrants without visas to obtain a drivers license. Berger is seeking the measure to help his compatriots living illegally in the U.S.
Trade pacts and economic integration are urgent for the Caribbean and Central America, whose economies have been experiencing substandard growth attributed to globalization, punctuated by growing Asian competition, and the Jan. 1 removal of apparel quotas, which long bolstered the Caribbean Basin.
Cafta, signed by President George W. Bush in May, and scheduled to come before the U.S. Congress in 2005, has encountered opposition from U.S. industry groups, including U.S. sugar producers who decry increases in quotas for Central American sugar.
Another flashpoint for Cafta has emerged in Guatemala. Its congress recently passed a law on patents for new drugs that some U.S. pharmaceutical industry leaders view as protectionism.
Berger, who plans to clear up any differences in interpretation, insisted Cafta "supplants any Guatemalan legislation."
The Dominican Republic
D.R. President Leonel Fernandez, whose country is Floridas second-largest trading partner after Brazil, received the most enthusiastic reception at the conference.
Pointing out that the two-way trade between Florida and the D.R. is now nearly $5 billion a year, Fernandez said "this figure represents more than Floridas merchandise trade with countries like Japan, Germany, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, and the United Kingdom."
Fernandez said that despite the facts that the D.R. is recovering from "a severe crisis that we suffered during the past couple of years," and that in 2003 the country "lost about 20% of our gross national product due to our poor economic performance and banking failures," the country "is now, officially, without a doubt, back in business."
The D.R. leader confidently stated his country is now the leading Caribbean vacation destination, with more than 60,000 hotel rooms, and is now attracting more than three million tourists a year. This sector injects more than $3 billion into the D.R.s economy annually, Fernandez said.
Pointing out that the D.R.-Cafta "is an important route to our promising future," Fernandez announced, "a tripartisan pact was reached by all three major parties in the D.R. Congress to eliminate the tax imposed on corn syrup from the U.S." The controversial provision resulted in strong opposition from corn-producing states and threatened to scuttle the D.R.-Cafta accord.
Jamaicas Prime Minister P. J. Patterson, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) leader with the most seniority, emphasized the Caribbean nations vulnerability to natural disasters and external shocks.
"It is unfair that they [the Caribbean nations] should live by trade rules that fit larger economies," Patterson said. "We expect the FTAA process to engender fair trade rules that take into full account our size and disparate strengths."
Trinidad & Tobago
Prime Minister Patrick Manning of oil and gas-rich Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) cautioned that the benefit globalization promises for the Caribbean nations "depends on the extent that we are able to influence the process."
"While trade liberalization can transform our economy and society, this is so, providing the rules are meaningful and fair and flexible, with due consideration of the specific needs and challenges [of our countries]."
Manning said T&T is determined to move ahead on plans to supply natural gas up the Antillean chain, and to eventually be able to export it to the U.S. The island is now the largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the U.S.
Haitis private sector was represented by more than a dozen businesspeople at the conference, where the troubled countrys chaotic situation was discussed daily.
One subject was a bill languishing in the U.S. Congress, the Haiti Economic Recovery Opportunity Act (known as Hero) that Prime Minister Gerard Latortue would like to see adopted. With apparel quotas in the U.S. scheduled to expire by years end, and the rapid expansion of Asian imports to the U.S., Haiti, along with Nicaragua, is unable to compete with China and other Asian exporters in the U.S. market.
"Either we [work together] as a region or Haitis apparel industry will shift completely to China or South Asia," warned Haitian apparel manufacturer Richard Coles, who employs 5,000 people in his plant in Port au Prince.
Most delegates at the conference, while optimistic about the future, agreed that 2005 would be very important in turning around the Caribbean Basin economies. They are convinced a strong role by the U.S. in its third border will be crucial.
This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.