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Brazil presses for attention on trade clout

Touring the bay area, Brazil's ambassador says the U.S. doesn't recognize the importance of Florida's biggest trading partner.

Rubens Antonio Barbosa, the Brazilian ambassador to the United States, says he wonders what it takes, short of a nuclear threat, to get this country's attention.

Russia, India and China are all heralded for their economic importance and potential. Yet Brazil, a bigger trading partner with the United States than any of them, barely registers. One recent survey that his government analyzed indicates Brazil does not have an image problem in the United States; it has no image.

"We're not on your radar screen because we're not a threat," Barbosa said during a boat tour of the Port of Tampa on Monday. "In spite of our size, we disappear."

For a day, at least, it was hard for the Tampa Bay area to ignore Brazil and the clout it wields as the biggest trading partner for Florida and the third-largest provider of foreign tourists to the state.

In a busy one-day visit, Barbosa stopped at the Tropicana Products plant during a helicopter tour; spoke before an international trade symposium; and chatted privately with executives from Vitality Beverages, Cargill Fertilizer and Danka International.

His recurrent themes were promoting trade and educating the United States to Brazil's economic importance.

Brazil is especially keen on Florida, which last year shipped $5.8-billion worth of machinery and other goods to Brazil and imported $2.8-billion worth of goods, more than any other state.

"Brazil and the U.S. are engaged in a wonderful moment. It's the highest level in all areas," Barbosa said. "We have only a few small problems."

The biggest stumbling block, in Barbosa's view, are U.S. tariffs and other restrictions on about 80 products that Brazil exports _ textiles, ethanol, steel and, most important, citrus and sugar. Florida, second only to Brazil in production of orange juice, has benefitted from the tariffs for years to stifle competition from cheaper Brazilian fruit. Barbosa said the issue will be sorted out in the next few years but should not impede trade growth in the meantime.

Barbosa, who is 11 months into his stint as ambassador, has been to Florida five times before, but always to Miami or Orlando.

Compared to Brazil's burgeoning business in South Florida, commerce with the Tampa Bay area is nascent but growing.

In other subjects, Barbosa said:

He expects to reach a draft of a free trade agreement with the United States by April 2001 but was non-committal on when particular trade differences, such as the dispute over orange tariffs, would be resolved.

He saw trade opportunities along Florida's high-tech, Interstate 4 corridor from the bay area to Orlando. Brazil's privatization of telecommunications has spurred technology, he said, noting that 88 percent of e-commerce in Latin America takes place in Brazil.

His country has a continuing problem with child labor that may take a generation to resolve.

Barbosa's visit, coordinated by the Tampa Bay Partnership, was a prelude to a July trade mission to Brazil headed by Gov. Jeb Bush. Up to 60 companies are expected to send representatives.

More than 420 of the Fortune 500 companies in the United States already do business in Brazil. The push for the trade mission is creating a similar link with small and medium-sized businesses.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who spoke at a luncheon in Barbosa's honor, sees the July trip as another step toward putting Florida's international opportunities in the spotlight. It comes after a successful trade mission to Mexico and in advance of plans to host a hemispheric summit in Florida next year.

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