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Worried about stolen jobs? So is Costa Rica

He's all for free trade but worries that China's low-wage workers will steal too many of his country's precious jobs.

Is that John Kerry talking? George Bush? Try Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias Sanchez, the president of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990 who hopes to regain his office in the country's 2006 election.

It seems U.S. workers are not the only labor force worried about corporations outsourcing jobs overseas to cheaper countries. Poor but aspiring countries such as Costa Rica fret that their hard-won garment manufacturing industry might soon slip through their fingers when China starts aggressively bidding for the same work. Costa Rican workers might work for far less than their counterparts in this country, but Chinese workers will toil for one-fifth the going pay in the Central American nation.

It's not a path Arias wants his country to travel.

"Costa Rica has little interest in participating in a go-where-the-labor-is-cheapest world tour," Arias told a mostly business audience at a Trenam Kemker-sponsored breakfast Wednesday at Tampa's downtown Hyatt.

Good luck. Welcome to the new domino theory. Garment work first concentrated in northern U.S. cities was lost to lower-cost southern factory towns, which in turn watched their textile and garment plants migrate to Mexico, Costa Rica, the Philippines and other Asian nations. Now those countries are under pressure from China, whose enormous population of cheap workers and can-do capability is rapidly making it the go-to country.

Arias said his country wants U.S. lawmakers to approve CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic negotiated CAFTA with the United States as a free trade pact designed to eliminate tariffs on U.S. imports and allow duty-free access to U.S. markets for nearly all goods from CAFTA countries. The trade deal awaits a vote on Capitol Hill.

With a diplomat's skills, Arias called Americans a wealthy and "generous" people while criticizing the U.S. government as the "stingiest" on earth. European and other rich countries devote a far higher percentage of their economic output to helping weaker countries.

Foreign aid, Arias suggested, is a big reason such once-lagging nations as Ireland, Portugal and Greece have been able to improve their infrastructures and boost their economies and standards of living so quickly.

But the United States won't follow the European model. "Foreign aid is dead," Arias said.

"The world is more protectionist now than it was 100 years ago," Arias said. He noted that even the United States still subsidizes its domestic sugar industry, which in Florida is largely controlled by South Florida's Fanjul family.

Costa Rica's economic future depends on free trade and, for now, on attracting some high tech and service jobs. Arias singled out Procter & Gamble, the U.S. consumer products giant, for its investments in the country. And he said Costa Rica, for years the most stable country in Central America, is trying to attract more call centers _ a strategy the Tampa Bay area embraced in the early 1990s _ as more young people in his country learn to speak English.

One Tampa company, Sykes Enterprises, operates at least two call centers in the country.

Arias became a Nobel laureate in 1987 for his role in bringing a peace plan to a strife-torn Central America. On Wednesday, he repeated his often-quoted concern that the United States spends too much on its military _ $450-billion, more than the rest of the world combined _ instead of doing more to help less-developed countries. He also questioned the $200-billion spent in Iraq.

His remarks on U.S. military spending met with scattered applause.

CAFTA is generally supported by U.S. business groups, including the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. But not everyone in Florida is so gung-ho. Katie A. Edwards, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, in a Miami Herald opinion piece Wednesday condemned CAFTA for delivering (like NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement in force for 10 years) a devastating blow to South Florida's agricultural economy.

On the flip side, a Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta report predicts a free trade agreement with Central America would enhance economic growth in the Southeast, including Florida.

For Arias, Costa Rica aims "to become the Singapore of the Americas." As more and more jobs migrate to the lowest-cost provider, that goal might get tougher to achieve.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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