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Pinellas courts old foes on trade mission

(ran NS, S editions of Tampa Bay and State)

Pinellas County officials are traveling to Vietnam and China on a trade mission, trying to pry open markets despite concerns about the nature of the governments they are dealing with.

County Commissioner Charles Rainey and William Castoro, who leads the county's economic development arm, left Friday for a brief set of business-promotion meetings with Chinese government officials in Beijing. Then they will spend several days in Vietnam, mostly making sales pitches for Pinellas manufacturers at an industrial exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City.

China and Vietnam are communist countries, but the U.S. government recently has advocated broader trade with both. President Clinton lifted a trade embargo with Vietnam in February. Clinton also has given China most-favored-nation trading status.

But those policies _ and the county's effort to exploit them for businesses in Pinellas _ are controversial. Human rights officials say both governments imprison political opponents unfairly and, in the case of China, torture and kill them on a wide scale.

Asian-Americans living in Pinellas object to local government officials promoting trade with those countries.

"I think there's some concern about . . . doing business with the communist governments," said Bun Hap Prak, executive director of the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center in St. Petersburg. "Our government can tell them, "If you want to do business, why don't you loosen up on human rights?' "

Veterans of the Vietnam War don't like the idea, either, on the grounds that the Vietnamese government hasn't come clean about missing veterans remaining in that country as prisoners of war.

"I don't see where it is in our benefit or the benefit of people that died over there or the people still over there," said St. Petersburg resident Ron Harris, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter covering Pinellas. "I'm totally against Americans and veterans paying their tax dollars for people to go over there for any reason other than to have the POW-MIA issue resolved satisfactorily."

Castoro said he has "some mixed feelings" about the Vietnam mission because of questions about prisoners of war, but he and Rainey said Pinellas should work to promote business.

"Our main interest, our function, is keeping the people of Pinellas employed," Rainey said. "This is a vehicle we use for that."

Prak and Harris said the county should have other ways of helping local businesses without pushing into China and Vietnam.

Rainey, however, said expanding trade would help liberalize those countries and lessen tensions in the world. He also said business and political leaders cannot let concerns about past human-rights abuses stop them from pursuing opportunities, or they will risk getting left behind.

"If you go by that philosophy," Rainey said, "we shouldn't be talking to the Germans because of what they did to the Jews, we shouldn't be talking to the Japanese because of what they did in the war. You go down the whole list, and we shouldn't be talking to anybody."

Rainey, chairman of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Economic Development Council, has done plenty of talking to Vietnam and China on behalf of Pinellas businesses. He and Castoro, the development council's director, traveled to the countries in February and March to make contacts.

The industry council got the first business license for Vietnam issued by the U.S. Treasury Department after Clinton lifted the embargo, Castoro said.

The county paid $7,317 for Castoro's trip in the spring, records show. There are no records at the county for Rainey's travel. The bills from the current trip haven't come in yet, but brochures said a package of visas and round-trip airfare to Ho Chi Minh City cost $1,200 per person. Hotel rooms were expected to cost about $75 per night. Rainey and Castoro are scheduled to return in two weeks.

Castoro said that during the last trip he discovered a huge potential market in Asia for pharmaceutical products. And there are 107 medical manufacturing companies in Pinellas, he said.

"Every product that's manufactured by those companies is needed over there," Castoro said.

The Pinellas officials will take samples and catalogs from 19 companies, mostly medical manufacturers, Castoro said. Five company executives will travel with the group, as well as a lawyer from Tallahassee who represents businesses from North Florida. The business people and the lawyer will pay their own way.

One company that's sending information and samples is Lenstec, a St. Petersburg outfit that manufactures technology to make artificial lenses used to replace the lenses removed during cataract surgery.

Nearly all of the company's business comes from sales to Third World nations, which generally do not have available to them the technology that Lenstec makes, said Hayden Beatty, vice president of operations.

"Obviously, we'd like to be one of the pioneers in the field over there," Beatty said.

Beatty said he thinks expanding trade with countries like Vietnam ultimately will improve living conditions and freedom for citizens of those countries.

Expanding business contacts with China, however, has not improved that country's human rights record, said Estrellita Jones, an Asia specialist for Amnesty International.

Jones said she hoped the Pinellas representatives would tactfully raise the matter of human rights in both countries.

Neither Rainey nor Castoro said they planned to do so.