Miami Herald, Thu, Apr. 13, 2006
Caribbean bloc considers free trade talks
A Caribbean Community delegation said it might hold talks with the United States on a free trade deal.
BY PABLO BACHELET
WASHINGTON - A visiting trade delegation from the 15-member Caribbean Community Wednesday began exploring the possibility of holding free trade talks with the U.S. government, CARICOM officials said.
The CARICOM bloc already enjoys preferential access to the U.S. market through the Caribbean Basin Initiative. But key textile concessions are set to expire in 2008, and the region has been losing ground to competitors in Central and South America as those countries sign free trade deals with Washington.
CARICOM officials said the slow progress of the hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) also has spurred the group to begin exploring alternatives. CARICOM ’’has been reassessing its position with respect to some future arrangement to ensure . . . access to the U.S. market is on a very sure and certain footing,’’ Jamaican Trade and Foreign Minister Anthony Hylton said after meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Bob Portman.
CARICOM’s bilateral trade with the United States totaled almost $10 billion in 2004.
The group has traditionally viewed free trade skeptically, concerned that the small size of its 15 member states would make them vulnerable before bigger hemispheric neighbors. But more recently CARICOM has sided with Washington when free trade divided the hemisphere at a summit in Argentina in November.
CARICOM officials noted Wednesday’s discussions were preliminary, something echoed by Portman’s agency.
’’Our discussion today was at a very general level,’’ spokeswoman Neena Moorjani said in an e-mail. ``We are happy to continue our trade dialogue.’’
The U.S. government and CARICOM will use the dormant Trade and Investment Council, made up of senior officials from both sides, as a venue to hold trade talks. The council may meet as soon as this summer, CARICOM officials said, for its first discussion since 1999.
But CARICOM continues to harbor some reservations over a free trade agreement with the U.S. government, which would not only deal with trade in goods but also complex issues like intellectual property protection and financial services.
Kenneth Valley, the trade and industry minister of Trinidad and Tobago, said CARICOM had ’’to think through very carefully the obligations that would be undertaken’’ under a free trade agreement.