April 15, 1999

Trade, tourism, tumult: Caribbean leaders look for solutions

                  SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) -- Juggling competing
                  economic interests, Latin American and Caribbean leaders address the perils
                  and promise of free trade at a 25-nation summit in Santo Domingo this

                  Promoting the region's $18 billion tourism industry also headlines the
                  Association of Caribbean States summit, comprised of Mexico, Venezuela,
                  Colombia, Cuba and the smaller nations of Central America and the

                  Forging a unified Caribbean trade strategy has eluded the unwieldy
                  association since its inception in 1994.

                  Mexico joined the North American Free Trade Agreement that year,
                  triggering a loss of thousands of Caribbean jobs in the garment industry
                  because of Mexico's trading privileges with the United States.

                  Banana-producing Caribbean states suffered a more recent blow when the
                  World Trade Organization upheld a U.S. challenge that their subsidized
                  exports to Europe violated free trade rules.

                  The topic is a sensitive one since the association's banana-producing
                  members in Central America, where U.S. multinationals operate, stand to
                  benefit from the WTO ruling. Its Caribbean members face the loss of
                  thousands more jobs.

                  "We cannot change the rules of the game," Secretary-General Simon Molina
                  Duarte acknowledged in an interview. "The countries involved have almost
                  nothing to say."

                  But he said the association can prepare its smaller nations for unrestricted
                  free trade by creating a regional tariff system that builds upon existing trade
                  agreements among members, such as the 15-member Caribbean Community
                  trade bloc.

                  Globalization's perils are a favorite theme of Cuba's Fidel Castro, whose
                  communist nation has been left out of talks on creating a Free Trade Area of
                  the Americas by 2005 -- even though Cuba is a member of the Caribbean

                  In a recent speech to diplomats of the association, Molina Duarte suggested
                  that the organization help get Cuba into the free trade process -- an idea
                  sure to raise hackles in Washington.

                  Castro has vigorously courted his Caribbean neighbors in recent years and is
                  unlikely to be criticized for his recent crackdown on political dissidents. Still,
                  at a summit planning meeting, a Cuban delegation objected to a position
                  paper suggesting that democracy was a condition for development.

                  No longer fearing reprisals from Washington, Caribbean democracies are
                  reaching out to Castro, hoping for extra muscle in upcoming talks with
                  European trading partners.

                  Collectively, the member states have a population of more than 200 million
                  and a $500 billion gross domestic product. But Molina Duarte noted that the
                  region's development -- largely dependent on tourism -- is hampered by
                  frequent natural disasters and a need for better transportation links.

                  The devastating 1998 Atlantic hurricane season killed 9,500 people, caused
                  billions of dollars in damage and set back Honduran and Nicaraguan
                  development by decades.

                  Aid has been slow in coming. Some nations have forgiven the two countries'
                  foreign debts, while a $956 million U.S. aid package for nations devastated
                  by Hurricane Mitch is held up in the U.S. Congress.

                  Leaders were to arrive Friday and meet through Sunday.