By Karen E. Thuermer, AJOT

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) may have not yet secured congressional passage, but groups are already lobbying the US Congress to pave the way for a US-Andean Free Trade Agreement.

An Andean FTA would expand trade benefits to Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Negotiations had first involved only Colombia, but nearly a year ago Peru and Ecuador joined with Colombia in the first round of negotiations last May.

The mood among FTA proponents, such as pro-industry groups like the US Chamber of Commerce is that if CAFTA does not pass, there may be little hope for a successful Andean FTA. Consequently, industry and political leaders representing all countries involved met at the US Chamber of Commerce headquarters one block from the White House on March 18 to express concerns and nail down a strategy.

Most encouraging to the group was a positive article that appeared in the Washington Post that day highlighting President Bush’s appointment on March 17 of Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a free-trade advocate, as his choice for US trade representative. As the editorial expressed, “He has a strong relationship with President Bush, which increases the chances that the president will put his shoulder to the wheel on trade issues, and his ties in Congress should brighten the prospects for trade legislation.”

William Morley, vice president for Congressional Affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, sees this appointment, if confirmed by Congress, as good news also for the future of free trade agreements in the United States.

“The mood on the Hill is always a challenge,” he told a group of nearly 50 people at the Andean FTA Congressional and Private Sector Roundtable, “but there have been recent successes with trade. However, opponents to the Bush Administration are drawing a line in the sand. CAFTA will be a close vote.”

Morley emphasized that CAFTA, as with the Andean FTA, should be sold to Congressional leaders on its “tangible benefits.” Those benefits, he said, are economical and geopolitical in addition to offering opportunities to increase the free flow of trade.

“CAFTA, of course,” he said, “is threatened by special interest groups such as the sugar and agricultural lobbyists.” But he is convinced some members of Congress who are quiet on their position will vote in favor of free trade.

Chris McCannell, chief of staff for Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) points out that CAFTA is a No. 1 priority with the Bush Administration, although President Bush is currently sidetracked promoting his Social Security reforms.

“If the sugar and agricultural groups succeed in defeating CAFTA, it will take a long time for the Andean FTA to come to a positive vote,” McCannell said.

Nevertheless, McCannell emphasized the need to grow a strong trade environment in the Western Hemisphere. But for now, other trade issues are at the forefront, he said. Among them is US membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Doha agreement. He also expressed his belief that giving President Bush fast track status does not look like it will come up for a vote.

“We at least want to see a successful completion of the Doha Round,” he said.

Morley stressed the importance of taking politics out of the free trade argument. For this reason, he sees Congressman Crowley’s support as a, “breath of fresh air.” But he added that China’s dominance in global manufacturing is tainting discussions with any other country.

Labor standards

Mark Smith, managing director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, US Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that industry opposing the Andean FTA will focus on issues surrounding international labor standards. Labor practices in Andean countries have been questioned, although Smith points out the countries involved abide by these international standards.

“We need to put in perspective the fact that we are not dealing with a high end manufacturing economy,” McCannell added. “The economies of these countries are more agriculture related. T