- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Foreign ministers from Andean countries yesterday urged U.S. lawmakers to approve expanded trade benefits, which they said were essential to fighting drugs and promoting economic development in South America.
The failure of Congress to renew the Andean Trade Preferences Act, which has boosted trade with the United States during the past decade, has hampered the region's economic progress, the ministers said.
"The expiration of the trade preferences is starting to create a lot of difficulties for some sectors of our economy," Colombian Foreign Minister Guillermo Fernandez de Soto said during a meeting among top diplomats of four Andean nations and editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
Mr. Fernandez said the program's expiration in December threatened the livelihoods of 100,000 female heads of household in his country working in the flower industry. Allan Wagner, Peru's ambassador, added that 40,000 Peruvian jobs depended on duty-free access to the U.S. market.
Both ministers, along with their colleagues from Ecuador and Bolivia, traveled to Washington this week to lobby for the renewal of the act. Created in 1991, the program was designed to foster economic growth in Andean countries and give workers other self-sustaining economic opportunities besides growing the coca used to manufacture narcotics.
"We're not asking for money to be given to us," said Heinz Moeller, Ecuador's top diplomat. "We're asking the market to open [to Andean products]."
President Bush has repeatedly stressed his support for the program, and most Democrats back the bill as well. But it is part of a larger trade bill that is bogged down amid partisan wrangling in the Senate.
The House approved the expanded trade benefits in December. The Bush administration assured the ministers this week that it was working to secure passage of the bill, they said.
The Andean diplomats stressed that the trade program had a proven track record of giving workers in their countries other options. They said the narcotics underworld also played a key role in financing terror.
"It's a matter of national security," Mr. Moeller said. "Drug trafficking is linked with terrorism and crime."
Despite bipartisan support in Congress, U.S. textile industry representatives criticized the trade bill, arguing that additional imports would hurt American companies.
"The textile industry right now is going through its worst economic crisis since the Depression, so we are extremely concerned when bills like this come up which would throw more U.S. textile workers out of their jobs," said Cass Johnson of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.
But Mr. Wagner dismissed this argument, saying Andean producers do not ship enough products north to disrupt the American market.
"The amount of textiles coming into the United States [from the Andean region] is less than 1 percent of imports," Mr. Wagner said.
He added that American cotton growers would benefit from a vibrant Peruvian industry, which uses cotton imported from the United States to manufacture textiles.

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