In an effort to give a helping hand to hurricane-hit Central America and the Caribbean, President Clinton will sign a law today giving the region greater access to U.S. markets for textiles and apparel.
The law, which sailed through Congress earlier this month, will also benefit the impoverished countries of sub-Saharan Africa by extending duty-free and quota-free benefits for African textiles and apparel.
Although some critics have warned that the bill could mean job losses in the United States, Florida Sen. Bob Graham called it a "significant step forward" for freer trade in the Americas.
Graham, a Democrat who is a leading proponent of the bill, said it would enhance Florida's already important commercial relations with the Caribbean Basin countries, while bringing much-needed stability to the region.
"It's a win, win, win situation," he said.
In recent years, largely as a result of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, the United States has reversed a large trade deficit with the region, turning it into a $3.5-billion surplus. More than 80 percent of all exports from Florida are now destined for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1999, five of Florida's top 10 trading partners were CBI nations.
Caribbean nations have long sought equal footing with Mexico, which was granted duty-free and quota-free access under the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
As a result of NAFTA, the Caribbean nations complain they have lost foreign investment and jobs as major firms have moved to Mexico.
The new law will be most felt in South Florida, because of its emergence as a transportation hub for textiles and garments heading to and from the Caribbean, as well as a cloth-cutting center for garments that are stitched in Caribbean countries.
But not everyone is happy. South Florida has benefited, in part, because current trade rules require companies to cut the cloth for stitching in the United States. This has created a cutting industry employing about 4,000 people in Miami and making the local ports and airports a major shipping center for the entire Caribbean Basin.
Under the new bill, textiles will no longer have to be cut in the United States. Some experts argue this could result in some companies moving their operations elsewhere.
"I don't think this will be good for Florida, or anywhere for that matter," said Jock Nash, Washington counsel for Milliken & Co., a large textile manufacturer in South Carolina. "It's going to cost lots of jobs and lost revenue from tariffs. The American taxpayer or American workers will have to pick up the tab."
Graham and other supporters of the bill agree there will be a painful transition for some in the textile and apparel industry.
"I anticipate some of the work is now going to be shifted to the Caribbean Basin countries," he said. "The reality is that's (the textile and apparel sector) a rapidly declining sector of our economy."
Instead, Graham said the challenge is now to strengthen the industry in the Caribbean Basin countries in order to resist the domination of major Asian firms.
Keeping the industry alive close to U.S. shores, said Graham, was the best way to assure jobs would be protected in the Caribbean Basin as well at home.
There was a similar need to protect jobs in Africa. Under the new law, imports of clothing made in Africa would be allowed to rise, boosting African exports of those products from about $250-million now to an estimated $4.2-billion.
The law completes a promise made by Clinton to the presidents of Central America two years ago after Hurricane Mitch devastated the region.
It is also a personal victory for Graham's oft-stated philosophy that trade is the best form of aid. He has introduced the bill three times over the past six years only to see it killed.
Graham and others argue that U.S. generosity in lifting tariffs will be more than repaid by economic well-being in Central America and the Caribbean, the source of most of Florida's recent waves of immigration.
Prosperity in the region will also strengthen democracy and protect smaller countries from falling into the hands of drug traffickers.
"We are contributing to a new decade in Central America," said Graham, referring to the economic chaos the region has suffered from past civil wars. "One of the fundamental ways that the United States has contributed to a pacification of the region is through the CBI and the jobs it has created."