Florida delegation to seek FTAA support in Barbados
By Samantha Joseph
A Florida delegation plans to travel this month to Barbados to build Caribbean support for Miami's bid for the headquarters of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
The move comes despite the Caribbean community's support of Trinidad and Tobago as FTAA headquarters in a process that gives each country one vote, regardless of size. The Floridians' plan is to have Caribbean countries vote for Miami as their second choice.
The trade agreement, if approved by 2005, would open trade among 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere. It would create a single market of 800 million consumers and a combined gross domestic product of $14 trillion. Nine cities, in addition to Miami, are vying to host the trade headquarters, known as the FTAA secretariat.
Under FTAA guidelines for choosing a headquarters location, all member countries must endorse the host. Miami's supporters hope to position it so that no country opposes its bid even if it is not listed as a first choice.
The effort follows Florida's supporters' general dismissal of Trinidad and Tobago as a serious competitor. Jorge Arrizurieta, president of Florida FTAA Inc., a group leading Miami's effort, said last week that Panama and Atlanta are the strongest competitors.
"Trinidad does not have the infrastructure to support the FTAA," he said. "For those of you who've been to Trinidad, that's not too hard to figure out."
But marketing materials from the Trinidadian government bills the country as "the heart of the hemisphere" and the "natural home of the FTAA secretariat."
A presentation on a promotional CD says that with more than $1 billion in foreign direct investment, Trinidad and Tobago has the second-highest foreign investment per capita in the Caribbean and Latin America.
The country also has a multibillion-dollar financial-services sector, according to the presentation. Several major multinational companies - including Coca Cola, FedEx, Nestle, Western Union and Microsoft - have headquarters or large operations on the island.
Trinidad is the southernmost Caribbean island, close to Venezuela and several other South and Central American countries.
Its primary gateway, Piarco International Airport, provides links to all metropolitan cities and easy access to international markets, the island's government says.
The country's population of 1.3 million includes Chinese, Indians, Lebanese, Syrians and people of African descent. It has a 91% adult literacy rate, and 48% of its labor force is skilled, according to the promotional CD.
"We are not in a position to offer assistance (to supporters)," said Harold Robertson, Trinidad and Tobago's consul general in Miami. "We are coming with a straight candidacy based on the integrity of our country as the best location for the secretariat."
He said Trinidad has launched a campaign for support from other countries considering the trade agreement.
"It's part of the process," he said. "It's a competition, but people will support a candidate whom they think is best-suited."
Mr. Robertson said the Florida delegation is only doing its job by lobbying in Barbados. "That's what they're supposed to do. That's their job. We are doing the same. We are targeting every eligible country for the FTAA. A team has already been to Florida, and we are dispatching teams all over the region from time to time."
He said more than half of the proposed member countries of FTAA have pledged support for Trinidad and Tobago.
According to FTAA Florida, Miami has secured endorsements from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Costa Rica. It also has gained the support of the Dominican Republic, which had committed to voting for Trinidad and Tobago, the group says.
Florida's supporters say news of an upcoming Organization of American States meeting in Fort Lauderdale strengthens the state's bid for the FTAA secretariat.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that Fort Lauderdale had won against several US cities to host the 35th annual OAS General Assembly.
The OAS is a Washington-based regional organization whose 34 active member countries include the US, Canada, and several Caribbean and Latin American nations. Each country has one vote in the group's decisions on issues like free trade, poverty, drug trafficking and human rights.
Hundreds of top-level delegates are expected in Broward County for the June 2005 meeting.
Earlier this year, Miami-Dade officials sought to bring OAS representatives to the county for about 18 meetings in a two-year period. Last February, the group announced the first session in Coral Gables, and said the move would bring international attention to the state and aid its bid for the FTAA headquarters.
"This confirms, yet again, that Florida and especially South Florida is the true and undisputable gateway to the Americas," Mr. Arrizurieta said Monday in a press statement from Ecuador, where Mr. Powell made the announcement for the 2005 meeting.
Mr. Arrizurieta was in Quito with Florida FTAA board members and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas on a three-day trip that coincided with the OAS meeting there. The group planned to meet with chambers of commerce and government officials to lobby for the FTAA secretariat.
It hopes to do the same in Bridgetown, Barbados later this month.
A media blitz in the Caribbean has led about 70 people to register for the June 23-24 Barbados symposium, organizers say. Business leaders, academics and policy makers from the Caribbean and Florida are set to attend, according to promotional materials.
The program will include presentations from Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Baldwin Spenser, the University of the West Indies and CARICOM representatives.
Florida groups such as representatives of Miami International Airport with a stake in the issue will offer assistance, guidance and resources to Caribbean businesses at the meeting.
Miami International Airport is a key advantage for the city's bid for the trade headquarters, said Mr. Arrizurieta. Its 1,000 weekly flights to potential FTAA cities are a major selling point.
Several other groups who stand to benefit from Miami's success with the secretariat have helped sponsor the trip and other initiatives aimed at gaining support. Baptist Hospital, Federal Express, World Trade Center, Enterprise Florida and Caribbean-Central American Action are among the underwriters.
"The pursuit of the FTAA gave rise to an opportunity that we never really knew existed before," said Miguel Southwell, Miami-Dade Aviation Department's assistant director of business development. "It really helped us to discover an opportunity that we really haven't explored" to work with Caribbean countries on several issues that would develop the region.
A promise to help fight AIDS in the region is a big draw. St. Kitts and Nevis government officials have met with FTAA Florida representatives to discuss possible US support in fighting the disease on the two-island nation, Mr. Southwell said.
Also, Miami aviation representatives have helped St. Kitts counterparts assess security of their airport.
St. Kitts has not committed to supporting Miami's secretariat bid, Mr. Southwell said.
Mercedes Ponce, executive director of Florida International University's continuing and professional studies division and one of the organizers of the Caribbean effort, said the campaign has several levels. "There's the educational component, practical experience and dialogue, so it's more than a theoretical exercise."
Several FIU research centers have combined efforts to address issues that affect the quality of life in the Caribbean. The groups study factors such as workforce development, poverty elimination and economic stability.
"That's why the commitment is there," said Ms. Ponce. "The fact that the State of Florida is supporting it gives it long-term viability."
Miami's offer to Caribbean countries will focus largely on concerns raised by Caribbean business leaders at the November 2002 Americas Business Forum, which coincided with an FTAA ministerial meeting in Quito, Ecuador. Some Caribbean leaders said the region is ill-equipped to compete in what would essentially be a 34-country domestic market under the FTAA.
"They didn't really have experience in benchmarking and setting international standards that would be required in competing with these 34 other countries," Mr. Southwell said. "They recognize that the people who have the greatest potential to purchase Caribbean goods and services, if they're looking for export opportunities, are Caribbean expats. But these business leaders have little to no international marketing experience."
The disparity between financing opportunities available to Caribbean businesses and their competitors was another concern.
While their Latin and North American counterparts would have ready access to stock markets, venture capitalists, credit lines and other funding options, Caribbean companies have limited choices, Mr. Southwell said.
Bank loans and internal profits are the primary capital sources in the region.
Efforts to create funding opportunities give rise to several problems, he said. To create a regional stock exchange, for instance, Caribbean countries must first determine whether to adopt a single currency for the region.
The process would have significant economic repercussions for the varied economies in the multifaceted region, he said. Countries like the Bahamas, whose currency is on par with the dollar, would have to tie its economy to nations like Jamaica, where one US dollar sells for about 40 Jamaican dollars.
Even attempts to partner with US venture-capital firms, which typically fund projects of more than $20 million, would present a challenge, Mr. Southwell said.
"Many of the Caribbean businesses don't have that type of massive need," Mr. Southwell said.
"We believe that Miami has had a greater focus on Latin America as opposed to the Caribbean. We would like to see that changed," said Mr. Southwell. "We are interested in building a similarly strong partnership between Florida and the Caribbean as Florida has with Latin America. We believe that this symposium is really the first step to doing that."
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