- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2001

On Thursday, President Bush finally gave Congress the long-awaited framework for trade legislation he needs to negotiate free-trade agreements. Mr. Bush told congressional leaders that so-called Trade Promotion Authority, also known as “fast track” authority, is at the top of his trade agenda. Well, it took a while for it to rise to the top, but better late than never. This is one legislative fight on which Mr. Bush needs to expend some capital.

It was to his detriment that Mr. Bush showed up at the Quebec Summit of the Americas without fast-track authority. As a result, leaders scarcely rolled up their sleeves to address the nuts and bolts issues central to reaching their goal. And yet, the efforts under way to create a FTAA do merit considerable credit upon closer consideration. It is difficult to fathom that in just four short years, the largest free trade area of the world could be created.

The goal of establishing FTAA by 2005 was set in the first Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994 and reiterated at the second summit in Santiago, Chile, in 1998. But under the Clinton administration, which was wary of hurting its prospects for unions´ financial campaign support, the drive for FTAA had largely stalled. Clearly, Mr. Bush has renewed the effort.

Although Latin America would seem like a natural trading partner for the United States for geographic reasons, it has long been dismissed as a coup-prone, drug-ridden, siesta-loving backwater. But Mr. Bush made clear during his campaign that he would give the region heightened importance, pledging to “look south, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency.”

Despite that commitment, creating FTAA will be a considerable challenge. While North Americans are wary of exporting jobs south, many Latin Americans fear they can´t compete against North America´s superior productivity.

Perhaps the best demonstration of the obstacles that lie ahead for FTAA is a trade-related feud between Mr. Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. UPI reported recently that “the First Siblings are facing another family row after the Quebec summit.” Jeb Bush “was elected with the loyal support of the state´s sugar and orange growers, who would be bankrupt without protection from foreign competition,” said the wire service, adding: “For the sugar industry alone, that protection is worth over $1.3 billion a year, and the American consumer pays double the world market price.” As luck would have it, Brazil, Latin America´s largest market, is keenly interested in exporting just those products to the United States.

So if FTAA can cause this level of discord within the Bush family, the climate in Congress promises to become contentious. But the president´s willingness to press on, despite these likely difficulties, augers well for FTAA.

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