Increasing trade with Central America, officials said, will also help burgeoning democracies in the region take hold and flourish in the future.CAFTA, a controversial agreement that has been criticized by labor advocates and continues to face obstacles to implementation in Central America, was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate in July. The law was designed to ease tariffs and reduce other barriers to trade between the United States and the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. Meeks was one of 15 Democrats in the House who helped win CAFTA's narrow passage by breaking with his party to vote for the bill.A small group of protesters from unions and the Working Families Party, which lobbied Meeks and others to vote against CAFTA, gathered briefly outside the conference Friday before being dispersed by airport security. They argue that free trade agreements benefit large corporations rather than working families by pushing jobs to foreign markets that lack adequate work protection standards.Meeks, however, said he had studied the CAFTA issue carefully and voted for the bill because he believes it will benefit his constituents by increasing air traffic at JFK and helping businesses in Queens create jobs. He also emphasized that in a global economy it would be unfair not to step up trade with the developing world."Critics want to go back to the good old days when we ruled the economic roost," Meeks said. "Trade agreements with Europe and Australia pass without controversy. What about the developing world?"Meeks, who noted that Queens is the most diverse county in the nation, said trade is more than commercial activity, representing an "exchange of values" that creates friendship."Trade is one of the oldest forms of contact between nations and people," Meeks said. "There are primarily two: war and trade. I prefer trade."The conference, organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was held as the CAFTA countries struggle to implement the agreement, and the three Central American ambassadors in attendance -- from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Nicaragua -- acknowledged that CAFTA has been met with criticism in their countries. Ambassadors Jose Guillermo Castillo from Guatemala, Flavio Dario Espinal from the Dominican Republic and Salvador Stadthargen from Nicaragua visited 22 cities last year along with Leslie Schweitzer, a senior trade adviser from the U.S. Chamber, to lobby support for CAFTA. They pointed out that CAFTA had been approved by the respective legislative bodies in their countries and stressed that despite the existence of opposition, free trade is essential to the development of their democracies. CAFTA, they said, would benefit both Central America and the United States by standardizing trade rules and making Central American economies more predictable."The same rules of engagement will exist in each country," Castillo said. "It will be six countries, one market."Reach Reporter Craig Giammona by e-mail at news@times
©2006 Community News Group
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