Caribbean countries seek Florida's aid in return for votes to base American trade hub in Miami
By Paola Iuspa
Some Caribbean countries want Florida to increase investments in their region, help bring technology to their private sectors and lobby for other advancements in exchange for their support of Miami's bid to become the hub of a proposed free trade zone for the Americas.
The Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis said Trinidad and Tobago, one of its 15 Caribbean members, is one of many sites vying to host the secretariat for a future Free Trade Area of the Americas Secretariat. Other countries vying for the building include Panama, Mexico and the US, where Miami and Atlanta are some of the cities competing to be the chosen one.
Terms of the free trade accord, set to eliminate quotes and tariffs, are currently being worked out, and the agreement would be signed by the 34 Western Hemisphere nations, except Cuba, in late 2005. Each nation will have one vote in deciding where the treaty office will go.
Prime Minister Denzil Douglas, past chairman of the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, told a small group of influential Miamians that CARICOM sees Miami as one of the best choices to be home to the FTAA secretariat. But he said it would do a great good to Trinidad and Tobago's economy to have an international office that would attract foreign travelers.
Trinidad and Tobago, he said, once a thriving financial center, has been hit hard by international laws on banking and the secretariat could help revamp its tourism industry and beef up the country's economy.
On the other hand, he said, Caribbean members would be willing to root for Miami if Florida becomes familiar with issues currently affecting them if the FTAA is not properly negotiated. Some of the Caribbean bloc nations are some of the smallest countries in the continent, he said.
"As we go to bed with the giant," he said, "we need to make sure we won't be squeezed in the process."
He said that because of their size and environmental conditions they need some "special treatment and considerations" worked out in the proposed free trade agreement.
Caribbean member states are Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. Strengthened by the same monetary and fiscal policies, CARICOM's single economy represents a market of more than 6 million people.
Mr. Douglas said that his nation, as well as the other 14 members, needs to know that once they give up import taxes, an important revenue source for their economies, there will be another business opportunities lined up to fill that void.
"We want to remove trade barriers," he said, "but the loss of revenues could create social problems."
Country members need a telecommunications and information technology framework to level the trade playing field, he said. They need US investment to help build that infrastructure to trigger private sector business development.
"Our private sector is not sufficiently developed to compete in a global economy environment," Mr. Douglas said.
After a restructuring of the their financial system, he said, they need allies to convince financial international organizations that CARICOM nations are playing by the international rules and their banks are safe. They also want the US to reshape its immigration laws related to deporting Caribbean nationals, he said.
Hugh Simon, Florida undersecretary of state for international affairs who attended last week's meeting of about 20 persons, mostly Miamians, said the Florida delegations would carry Mr. Douglas' message to Washington. Other attending the meeting, sponsored by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, also responded favorably to Mr. Douglas' comments and vowed to help.
Miguel Southwell, Miami-Dade Aviation assistant director of business development, said Miami International Airport has a program to train aviation professionals from other countries and he hoped the Caribbean countries would take advantage of that curriculum.
Beatrice Rangel, senior adviser to the chairman at Cisneros Group of Companies who sits on the board of the University of Miami's Dante B. Fascell North-South Center, told the prime minister the North-South Center would provide CARICOM at no cost a group of professional negotiators to help the region with the FTAA talks.
Mr. Douglas welcomed the offers and said the World Bank is currently assessing the bloc's economic condition and needs. In six months, the report will be ready and he will have a better idea of how Florida could help the region improve its economies, he said.
Issues on CARICOM's agenda include restructuring of regional institutions, analyzing the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on existing arrangements such as the Caribbean-Canada Trade Agreement and the Caribbean Basin Initiative, resolving the Haitian crisis and establishing trade and economic agreements with Venezuela and Colombia.