- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Central American leaders are in Washington this week to press Congress and the administration for quick consideration of a recently completed trade pact amid worries that a vote may be delayed or derailed because of upcoming elections.

“Yes, indeed, we are very concerned,” said Mario Arana, Nicaragua’s development, industry and commerce minister. “That is in part why we are here. We want to convey our concerns about not passing [the agreement] this year.”

The Central American Free Trade Agreement — with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the recently added Dominican Republic — would lower trade barriers on industrial and agricultural goods, and for the Latin nations would codify free-market principles in a major international agreement.

The Bush administration last week wrapped up talks with the Dominican Republic, the last country added to the package. The agreement requires the president’s signature and majority approval by Congress before it becomes law.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick last week said, “We will do our best to get these agreements through” this year.

But chances that Congress will consider the pact this year are at best uncertain.

“I don’t think they are good at all. But I don’t think we should stop pushing for it,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican. Mr. Kolbe, a strong supporter of CAFTA, met yesterday with Central American trade ministers and urged them to continue building support for a vote this year.

The Central American trade ministers this week and through the year plan to meet with administration officials, legislators, U.S. business groups and Hispanic groups as they look to keep the agreement alive. Mr. Arana, as well as Miguel Lacayo, El Salvador’s economy minister, and Alberto Trejos, Costa Rica’s trade minister, in separate interviews said they would work to build support for a vote as early as possible.

“We understand the realities of the legislative process, but also we will do our best to support the agreement,” Mr. Arana said.

The Central American nations, involved in and destabilized by destructive civil wars in the 1980s and 1990s, see CAFTA as a capstone of their turn toward democracy, market economics and support of the United States even as other Latin American nations reject or question U.S. leadership.

“This is the consolidation of a very difficult, very grave process that for some of our neighbors started with civil war. It has taken courage and vision to get to this point,” Mr. Trejos said.

In El Salvador, elections Sunday confirmed support for a pro-U.S., free-market path, Mr. Lacayo said. Tony Saca, who won over a left-leaning former guerrilla leader, promised to continue his party’s free-market policies and to press ahead with the trade deal.

“Salvadoreans voted for free trade,” Mr. Lacayo said, interpreting the election results.

Mr. Lacayo said he hoped President Bush and CAFTA heads of state would be able to sign the agreement in May, allowing legislatures in the Central American and Caribbean countries to ratify the pact this summer or fall.

Timing in the United States is less certain. House Republican leaders do not believe there are now enough votes to win approval for the agreement. Support is missing because CAFTA opponents have tied free trade to heavy job losses in some manufacturing sectors, and are concerned that the pact does not do enough to enforce worker rights.

Because of procedural issues, a CAFTA vote is technically not possible before late June or, more likely, July, leaving a short window before legislators break for the summer and then enter the campaign season.

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