Push on Capitol Hill to boost US-Caricom ties

The Nation

Push on Capitol Hill to boost US-Caricom ties

Published on: 1/8/07.

by Tony Best

WITH THE DEMOCRATS getting ready to take charge of Capitol Hill in Washington, a multifaceted initiative designed to boost economic and political ties between the United States and CARICOM has been placed on the table.

It’s the brainchild of Manchester Trade, a private firm of international business advisors in Washington. Its president, Stephen Lande, thinks that the linchpins of any approach would be a White House-level CARICOM consultative mechanism; Haiti’s admission to the Dominican Republic-US portion of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA; and a delay in any attempt to negotiate a US-CARICOM free trade pact until after the African Caribbean Pacific Economic Partnership Agreements have been wrapped up with the European Union.

"We strongly support the adhesion of Haiti to the DR-US portion of CAFTA within a three-year period," Lande said in Miami recently.

"We believe the rest of CARICOM should wait until at least the end of the negotiations with the Economic Partnership Agreement before proceeding to consider an FTA with the United States. In the Interim, CARICOM should focus on establishing a special White House Chief of State/CARICOM Secretary-General level consultation mechanism with the authority to address and resolve problems before they become serious disputes and to undertake initiatives where necessary."

The time line for launching "high-level consultations" would be June, when a Caribbean-US conference is due to be held in Washington as part of Caribbean Heritage Month celebrations in the US, he added.

Lande insists the timing couldn’t be better for the initiative, given the Democrats’ ascent to power in the US House of Representatives and the Senate, and the interest some powerful lawmakers have in the region.

"From a political point of view, there may be no better time for the Caribbean to seek a special partnership with the United States," he told a town-hall meeting in Florida’s best-known city, where private- and public-sector decision makers were focusing their attention on the Caribbean and Central America during the annual Miami Conference.

"The most powerful man in trade in Congress, perhaps the country, is Charles Rangel, the best friend of the Caribbean," he said. "The US State Department is increasingly aware of the threat to stability to the third border posed by Venezuela with a strengthened re-elected (Hugo) Chavez (as president), and a period of instability expected in Cuba."

Then, there are the black immigrants from the Caribbean who live and work in various parts of the US and whose "votes remain an important factor in the upcoming elections".

Outlining the details of the initiative, Lande said the "high-level consultation mechanism" he has in mind "would assure that Cabinet officials" in Washington "be seized with Caribbean concerns quite early, when policies are being formulated" and thus avoid any "unintended deleterious" fallout, and provide for "remedial action."

Both the Congress and the private sector along with NGOs should have a say in the process, he suggested.

As for the proposed CARICOM-US FTA, an idea articulated at the same meeting by Barbados’ Prime Minister Owen Arthur, Lande warned that it could be painful and could even "threaten the sliver of farming and manufacturing that exists" in the Caribbean. Just as important, it "would create few new benefits" for the various countries.

"The type of FTA the United States would negotiate with CARICOM differs in one major way from the Aid for Trade discussions with the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and the development assistance that is part of the EU preferential negotiations with ACP countries - the difference is that such structural assistance does not exist," he said.

"We suggest that CARICOM leverage will be maintained if negotiation takes place after the EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement) when US exporters realise they would be disadvantaged in the US market."

Lande believes the issues separating CARICOM and the US were unlikely to be "assuaged" by an FTA - whether it was Internet gambling, which was already covered by WTO "disciplines" and which Washington "appears to be evading;" stricter passport rules affecting US tourists to the Caribbean; the issue of European banana preferences to Eastern Caribbean producers; US drug enforcement efforts, offshore banking, or the deportation of criminal aliens.

In any case, with "fast track authority" for the US President, George Bush, still to be adopted by Congress, the idea of a CARICOM-US trade agreement "becomes largely an academic discussion" anyway.

Turning to Haiti, the Dominican Republic and CAFTA, the Manchester Trade President contends the French-speaking Republic has much to gain.

"Today Haiti has a small capacity to export, principally garments," he said. "It has, however, the capacity to become the Hong Kong of the Western Hemisphere, and thus needs access to the market that the DR-CAFTA has."

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source: The Nation