- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The United States yesterday closed negotiations on a slimmed-down Central American Free Trade Agreement, a partial victory for the Bush administration as it works to open markets for American businesses.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said the pact is a “cutting-edge, modern [free-trade agreement] designed to tear down the tariff walls that block trade between the United States and Central America, between friends and neighbors.”

The agreement — minus Costa Rica, which bowed out of talks after it objected to certain U.S. demands — will likely face stiff opposition in Congress amid election-year considerations.

“As it stands, I don’t think this agreement has the support needed for congressional approval,” said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and a supporter of past trade pacts.

The Central American agreement, which Mr. Zoellick hopes will include Costa Rica and eventually the Dominican Republic, is an important component of the Bush administration’s strategy to liberalize international commerce.

“Step by step, country by country, region by region, the United States is opening markets with top-notch, comprehensive [free-trade agreements] that set the standard,” Mr. Zoellick said.

But the Central American agreement for now lost its most stable and economically advanced member, Costa Rica, and two other deals scheduled for completion this month, with Australia and Morocco, had to be pushed into next year after negotiators could not agree to terms.

Yesterday’s agreement, reached after an intense negotiation session that ran through the morning hours, includes El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos, in Washington yesterday, predicted Costa Rica would get back on board early next year.

Some business groups quickly lined up behind the deal.

“This agreement should pave the way for a substantial expansion of business ties between the U.S. and Central America,” said Dan Christman, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for international affairs.

But others said they would fight it in Congress.

“This does not look like something the textile industry will be able to support,” said Cass Johnson, acting president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, an industry group.

Mr. Johnson said it appears the pact will cost U.S. jobs. The textile industry is likely to lobby Republicans from the Carolinas, key swing votes, against the agreement and appears to have a receptive audience.

“While we do not have a lot of details on the specifics of the CAFTA, it appears that yet again the U.S. textile worker will pay the price for the ‘free trade agenda,’” said Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina Republican.

U.S. trade officials said fabric and clothing-related rules would allow for a more integrated industry in North and Central America that could better compete with Asian nations.

Mr. Zoellick said the overall agreement would promote investment, slash tariffs on goods, remove barriers to trade in services, provide intellectual property protection, promote regulatory transparency and provide an effective system to settle disputes.

The draft text of the agreement will be released in January, USTR said. The administration expects formally to notify Congress early next year that it will sign the pact — notification must come at least 90 days before signing — allowing lawmakers to vote as soon as this spring.

Combined total goods trade between the United States and the four CAFTA countries is $15.4 billion, USTR said.

Sharon Behn contributed to this article.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide