By and  on January 31, 1994

WASHINGTON -- The push to put trade with the Caribbean Basin on an equal footing with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement will be revving up again this year.

How this parity will eventually be granted remains to be seen, however. and there may be a lot of political wrangling before it becomes a reality.

Congressional backers of Caribbean parity say they will be moving ahead with legislation to make it happen, and businesses in Florida, where parity is seen as crucial to a flourishing Miami-based apparel trade, will be making their presence felt on Capitol Hill.

The relationship between Miami and the Caribbean Basin Initiative countries has been fostered by the 807 programs of the U.S., providing duty breaks on apparel using fabric cut in the U.S., assembled by cheap labor in the Caribbean and imported back into the U.S.

Nevertheless, the new free trade status of Mexico -- under NAFTA, which went into effect Jan. 1 -- is seen as putting this 807 process, and the investments in it by U.S.-based apparel companies, at a competitive disadvantage.

The issue is not new, and last fall, when the battle for NAFTA passage was being fought, it was proposed that Caribbean parity be part of the NAFTA-implementing legislation. The White House backed away from this, and sources say it might still be reluctant to make an immediate push directly for parity.

Congressional sources say the administration is still weighing a broader approach -- an accession program in which Latin American countries could be admitted to NAFTA without negotiating separate agreements.

In December, President Clinton, meeting with the leaders of Central American and CBI nations, expressed sympathy with their concerns. He stopped short of endorsing Caribbean parity, but instead said he favored an economic development program for all Latin America. The President directed U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to study the issue and report back early this year.

A spokeswoman for Kantor said the CBI parity study was not completed, adding she had "no idea" when it would be.

Among the moves afoot in Congress is the plan by Rep. Sam Gibbons (D., Fla.), chairman of the House Trade Subcommittee.,to give CBI countries equal treatment with Mexico for three years until they can negotiate their own NAFTA agreement.

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