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US And CARICOM Will Forward Free-Trade Talks

by Mike Godfrey,, Washington

20 April 2006

After CARICOM and the US agreed last month to forgive and forget their differences over Haiti, a delegation of eight CARICOM trade ministers met USTR Bob Portman in Washington last week to discuss ways of holding free trade talks with the US government.

Slow progress in Free Trade Area of the Americas talks due to resistance from Venezuela and a few other Latin American countries, partly with a Doha Round sub-text, have encouraged CARICOM to seek alternative routes towards free trade with the US, and the parties had already decided in last month's talks to revive their long-dormant Trade and Investment Council (TIC).

Although CARICOM exports already receive preferential access to the US through the Caribbean Basin Initiative, important textile concessions are due to expire in 2008; other concesssions are included in the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA), which expired on December 31, 2005. The US is currently negotiating with the World Trade Organization (WTO) for an extension of its waiver for the Act until 2008.

It was the US that proposed reconfiguring the TIC, which was set up in 1991 but was fairly ineffective and fell into disuse. The Council is now proposed as a vehicle to promote and develop trade and investment between the Caribbean and the USA; its first meeting may be as early as this summer.

Attendees at the meeting took the opportunity to express CARICOM regional solidarity with the position of Antigua & Barbuda in the WTO Internet Gaming case; Mr Portman's smile may have become a little fixed at this point.

At last month's meeting in the Bahamas, the first major official meeting between CARICOM and the US since 2001, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice welcomed CARICOM’s decision to re-engage Haiti, and to provide assistance for its institutional development. Both parties agreed on the importance of the international community remaining engaged in Haiti over the long term, in order to promote stability and socio-economic progress.

The Ministers and the Secretary of State reviewed initiatives to promote regional economic reform and integration, and underscored the importance of free trade as an engine of economic growth and development. They noted the significant progress made in restructuring the economies of the region through the creation of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy – a vital component of which is a regional Development Fund.

In February, six Caricom member states formally signed a declaration of their governments' compliance with the provisions of the Treaty establishing the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSM). The countries, namely Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, became the first six Caricom countries to have signed on to the single market.

The six Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) agreed to a start date for compliance of June 30. The OECS states include Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Of the three remaining Member States, The Bahamas and Haiti have not signified their intention to participate in the CSME process and Montserrat - a British Dependency - is awaiting the necessary instrument of entrustment from the United Kingdom's government.

Very importantly for Barbados, Dr Rice agreed that the United States will support the CARICOM preparations for the security of Cricket World Cup 2007, with particular focus on border security.

"One would like to see this as the beginning of the new relationship between the US and Caricom ...," said Dominica's foreign minister Charles Savarin.

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