- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

The White House will be taking the politically risky step of putting in front of Congress a free-trade agreement with Central America in an election year. This week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced the conclusion of talks on the trade agreement, which is known as CAFTA, and said the president plans to sign the deal and put it in front of Congress next year.

CAFTA represents a notable broadening of U.S. engagement with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Costa Rica may join the deal some time next year. Establishing free-trade ties is one of the few effective policy options the United States has in fostering relationships with the developing world. Given Central America’s proximity to the United States, its stability and development are important U.S. concerns.

Although poor, Central America has been relatively stable when compared with its Andean neighbors. Now is the right time to engage the region through trade to help prevent volatility from spreading. The United States has also prompted Central American countries to commit to reforms that include more consistent labor and environmental protections.

The trade accord also will eliminate tariffs on more than 80 percent of U.S. exports to the region. Though the Central American market remains small, with bilateral trade totaling about $15.4 billion, the region is significant for some U.S. industries. The administration has larger concerns in other parts of the world, but it is nonetheless useful to forge policies that ensure stability, rather than simply react to problems. CAFTA is a deliberate and politically brave step in the right direction.

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