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Caribbean Basin Nations Agree to Form Trade Bloc - 2001-12-13

Caribbean basin nations, including Cuba and Venezuela, have agreed to cooperate more closely and to form a bloc to press for preferential treatment in world trade negotiations. During the meeting, Venezuela called for establishing an alternative hemispheric trade bloc to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas which is being promoted by the United States.

Leaders and representatives of the 25-member Association of Caribbean States Wednesday signed a declaration denouncing terrorism, and pledged to increase efforts against drug trafficking and money-laundering. At the conclusion of two days on the Venezuelan island of Margarita, they also signed cooperation agreements dealing with energy, tourism, and sustainable economic development.

The participants also underscored the need for preferential treatment for the region in world trade negotiations. For his part, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged members to create an alternative to the U.S. supported Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA. Mr. Chavez, a frequent critic of the FTAA proposal, warned the delegates that such an agreement could lead to their ruin.

At a news conference Wednesday, the populist Venezuelan leader said even if the FTAA becomes a reality, he would submit the accord to a referendum. "Since we believe that the FTAA is not feasible as it stands, what we propose is working towards an alternative," he says. Mr. Chavez has called his proposal the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas after South American liberator, Simon Bolivar.

But Cuban President Fidel Castro, who was one of the leaders attending the conference, acknowledged the difficulties facing the region in seeking alternatives to globalization. But Mr. Castro said conference participants had at least taken a first step. "It's still too early to say how this will take shape, but we've done some things that can begin the process so that we can help each other survive," he says.

Cuba is not included in the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas because of its communist government. However, the other nations of the hemisphere have committed themselves to establishing the FTAA in 2005.

Prospects for establishing the FTAA received a boost last week when the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation giving President Bush expanded authority, often referred to as Fast Track, to negotiate free trade accords. Many Latin American nations had expressed reluctance to enter into serious negotiations with the United States without Fast Track, which has still not been approved by the U.S. Senate.