- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

A much-heralded program designed to boost American economic ties with Caribbean nations by promoting clothing exports to the United States has done little to achieve its goal, according to business groups and government statistics.
The U.S.-Caribbean Trade Partnership Act, which Congress passed last year following six years of debate, was intended to help Caribbean and Central American nations by giving them duty-free access to the huge American market.
But Commerce Department figures released yesterday showed that textile and apparel trade between the United States and this region declined 2 percent during the law's first year.
"There were great intentions, " said Alfredo Milian, executive coordinator of the Central America and Caribbean Textiles and Apparel Council, an El Salvador-based business group. "But it has had a very slow start because there are a lot of protectionist measures built into it."
The law's failure to boost trade has been all the more clear because a similar measure aimed at Africa and passed at the same time has been, by all accounts, a rousing success.
Both programs took effect Oct. 1, 2000. In the following 12 months, African countries' exports jumped 37.8 percent by volume, according to Commerce Department statistics, while Caribbean shipments declined.
The reason, according to industry officials, is that Africa benefits from much freer trade with the United States.
To benefit from the law, Caribbean countries, a grouping that includes 16 island nations and Central America, must use U.S.-made fabric, or fabric made from American thread, to manufacture the garments they then ship duty-free to the United States.
By contrast, African countries can save on transportation costs by using material from their own region, or by buying it from other countries, such as China, giving them a vital leg up.
"They can save a lot of money, " said Brenda Jacobs, a trade lawyer with Powell Goldstein Frazer & Murphy who works with clothing importers.
The U.S. textile industry, which pushed for the fabric restrictions on Caribbean countries, contends that the U.S. economic downturn more than any other factor has hampered Caribbean countries.
"Certainly, trade has not grown to the extent anyone would want," said Carlos Moore, executive vice president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.
"But we've had a terrible slowdown," Mr. Moore said.
Ms. Jacobs countered that Africa's success demonstrates that Caribbean countries are suffering because of the restrictive U.S. law.
"If this program were working, they would not be losing market share," she said.
Mr. Moore and Ms. Jacobs agreed, however, that the U.S. Customs Service has contributed to the law's disappointing results. Companies need clear rules for the program for it to work effectively, but Customs has not clarified key aspects.
For example, Customs is said to have dragged its feet for months to clarify whether companies can dye and finish U.S.-made fabric in the Caribbean, or whether that work must take place in the United States.
The law's language is ambiguous, industry attorneys said.
Without a clear statement from Customs, manufacturers in the Caribbean are not willing to use the program.
"Customs just never issued the regulations, " Mr. Moore said.
A Customs official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the agency is waiting for Congress to clarify the law.
The House Republican leadership, as part of last-minute horse-trading to get another trade bill throughCongress, promised two weeks ago that it would seek legal changes to specify that dyeing and finishing must take place in the United States.
But Rep. Bill Thomas, the California Republican who heads the House Ways and Means Committee, has vowed to stop the move.
That means more delays in clarifying the law, Ms. Jacobs said.
Alarmed that this change would eviscerate the trade program, nine ambassadors from Caribbean nations wrote Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urging him to "reconsider this position and ask that the [trade] benefits be maintained intact, as originally intended by Congress."

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