- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

Presidents from six Latin American nations plan to barnstorm 11 U.S. cities this week to promote a free-trade agreement between the United States and their countries to a skeptical American public and undecided Congress.

The Central America Free Trade Agreement would lower tariffs and codify investor rights for companies operating among the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the United States.

The Bush administration and the six Latin American governments hail the pact as a historic political and commercial opportunity for fledgling democracies and struggling economies in the region.

“CAFTA is strongly in the long-term best interests of every person in our hemisphere,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said last week.

But Congress, which must approve CAFTA with a simple up-or-down vote, is not convinced. Organized labor, sugar producers and many textile companies oppose the pact, warning it would harm workers and destroy industries.

The six presidents hope to sway the public, and some lawmakers, with their visit.

“The presidents will be able to express in the best way possible how we see this free-trade agreement as an integral part of the relationship between our region and the United States,” said Guillermo Castillo, Guatemala’s ambassador to Washington.

The six nations and CAFTA supporters in the business community also see a meeting Thursday with President Bush as a strong sign of direct White House support and involvement as a congressional vote nears.

“We are entering the final, critical phase for CAFTA,” said John Murphy, vice president for Western Hemisphere affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber is helping organize the two-day blitz, today and tomorrow, through cities with existing business ties to Latin America or growing immigrant communities from the six countries.

In Washington, the presidents plan to meet with members of Congress Wednesday and Mr. Bush Thursday.

Workers from the United States, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guatemala this week are leading their own U.S. tour, dubbed “CAFTA — We Don’t Hafta,” to oppose the trade deal. The workers are scheduled to rally in the District, New York and San Antonio, the AFL-CIO labor federation said.

The Bush administration is hoping it can sway a few Democrats to vote for the pact, but many are wary of CAFTA because of labor’s opposition.

“The CAFTA agreement the president is expected to propose to Congress is seriously flawed and undermines workers’ rights,” said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, California Democrat and chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, a traditionally pro-trade group. Ms. Tauscher and three colleagues from the coalition last week said the pact would be dead on arrival if formally sent to the House.

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