- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Bush administration is working to build support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement with a focus on boosting economic ties in the face of rising competition from China and mobilizing support among a growing Hispanic population in the United States.

CAFTA, with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, would be the biggest trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement and is shaping up as fierce political battle in Congress.

“I feel very good about where we are now,” said Christopher Padilla, assistant U.S. trade representative for public liaison.

Mr. Padilla is scheduled to join ambassadors from the CAFTA nations in Charlotte, N.C., today and Raleigh, N.C., tomorrow to promote the free trade agreement to skeptical textile manufacturers and workers.

The textile industry is particularly concerned about competition from China, and the administration is hoping to convince companies that an economic alliance within the Western Hemisphere will make them more competitive.

“I do believe this will be a good opportunity … to lay everything on the table. I think it will be a good thing,” said Mike Hubbard, vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, an industry group that, reflecting a split in its membership, has not taken a position for or against the pact.

The road show is part of a multicity effort to convince businesses that they will benefit from CAFTA, and to build support among U.S. Hispanics for closer ties with their home countries.

Central American and Dominican ambassadors have traveled to seven U.S. cities with either close economic ties to or significant populations from the region ” New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, Tampa, Fla., San Antonio, New York and Dallas.

“These are carefully chosen, carefully focused,” Mr. Padilla said. “A lot is going on. I anticipate even more outreach, particularly to Hispanic business and immigrant groups.”

The strategy has been effective in some quarters, winning CAFTA endorsements from Hispanic chambers of commerce in Louisiana, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Dallas, for example.

But it also has touched a nerve.

“As members of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, we are alarmed and offended by reports that in order to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement, Bush administration trade officials and their allies in the business lobby will portray CAFTA opponents as being ‘anti-Hispanic,’ ” 16 members of the caucus, all Democrats, wrote last week to Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative.

Hispanic civil rights and immigrant groups also have opposed the pact.

“Already 400 people a day migrate to the U.S. from Central America, and CAFTA will increase migration to the United States, not improve conditions,” said Angela Sambrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, a Los Angeles organization founded by Salvadoran refugees.

Hispanics of Central American and Dominican origin make up a small percentage of the U.S. population, but are considered a rising political force. According to 2000 census data, almost 765,000 people of Dominican origin and 1.5 million from the other CAFTA countries live in the United States.

Despite a gathering effort from the administration, the deal is far from approval. It is still not clear when CAFTA will be sent to Congress, which can vote yes or no but not amend the pact. House and Senate committee hearings are expected as soon as next month.

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