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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 5, 2003 14 years ago

Harris Plugs FTAA (Sara/Mana edition)

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Free Trade Area of the AmericasJohannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist. He carries a German passport, is married to a Mexican, and publishes a trade monthly, Cuba Trade & Investment News

Harris Plugs FTAA (Sara/Mana edition)

Katherine Harris is commuting between Sarasota and Washington - with frequent side trips to Miami these days.

The representative of our Congressional District 13, an area not exactly known as a hub for hemispheric trade, doesn't miss a major event related to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). She was there during the signing ceremony of the U.S.-Chile Free Trade Agreement earlier this year, she showed up at public events promoting Miami's bid to host the permanent headquarters of the FTAA, and she attended the opening ceremony of the FTAA ministerial meeting Nov. 16-21 in Miami.

Since Harris' office hasn't been touting these free-trade related activities, few of her constituents know about this. But now, while testing the waters for a run for the Senate, she apparently is ready to raise her foreign policy and economic development profile.

Getting the FTAA secretariat to Miami is crucial for all of Florida, Harris told the Review. "The things that can happen for us are incredible," she said. Her calculation: In less than a decade, Florida's foreign trade has risen by $42 billion to $74 billion. Every billion dollars in exports supports 20,000 new jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The FTAA would give us another boost. The agreement, she believes, would add $30 billion to Florida's gross state product and create at least 90,000 jobs in the state.

"It's a spillover opportunity for us," she says. "Yes, it's going to start in Miami-Dade, but it's absolutely critical we get the FTAA."

She credited herself with having provided the $8.5 million in federal funding for the 8,000 cops policing the recent FTAA meeting. Never mind that the money paid for much criticized bully-style law enforcement, and that it came via an obscure one-liner in the massive $87 billion Iraq war bill. Harris seems to thrive in her role as a lightning rod.

"I did get that in," she said about the line item. To be sure, Harris' pro-FTAA activism is nothing new. Her travel frequency to Miami now is low compared to her days as Florida secretary of state, when she was feared as a forceful supporter of Miami's grand plans to become the "Geneva of the Hemisphere."

Still, her current House activities make her a player in the FTAA and other foreign policy issues. As vice chair of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee, she is in constant touch with the U.S. trade representative, the presidency's office in charge of free-trade negotiations. Also, as a member of the House Middle East and Central Asia committees, she has made a point of defending George W. Bush's controversial policies in those hot spot regions.

But being an outspoken Bush supporter in these days of rising resistance to war and free trade isn't without risk.

Harris likely won't be hit by rubber bullets or tear gas like the New College students who were seen as a threat to homeland security during the ministerial FTAA meeting in Miami. But there's a political landmine in Harris' home turf, and that's where the free trade issue gets murky. At issue are the profits and jobs Manatee County's agribusinesses stand to lose with Brazilian imports.

Florida citrus and sugar have been clear in their position: We love free trade - as long as our protective tariffs and import quota remain untouched. The Florida Farm Bureau has held a similar position, but local associations representing tomato and cattle- Manatee's ag business mainstays - haven't raised their voices yet. Given the beating local tomato and winter vegetable growers received by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s, this may just be a matter of time.

Harris knows that. So she shows concern for Florida citrus growers. If Brazil achieves its goal of lowering or killing U.S. citrus tariffs, Florida citrus cannot compete with Brazil's low wages, she says. That would leave an oligopoly of two Brazilian companies controlling the citrus world market, she claims. And would that be good for consumers? (It appears Florida citrus growers got what they wanted in Miami - the latest FTAA draft foresees U.S. citrus tariffs to remain in place for another decade). She also expresses sympathy for NAFTA-damaged tomato growers.

"On NAFTA, the tomato growers were handled totally disingenuously," Harris said. All the promises U.S. negotiators gave to tomato producers in the sidebar negotiations were finally dropped. "Our tomato growers suffered horribly."

So far, it looks like the topic is a winner for Harris. None of the local ag business greats would go on the record criticizing Harris. Even so, as you probably know by now, Harris could sit out such a little storm easily.

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While Miami was abuzz with free trade talks, the United States administration is still trying to block trade with our nearest neighbor as much as it can.

Nevertheless, Cuba is on track to buy $300 million worth of U.S. goods this year. Most of these shipments passed through Jacksonville, Mobile and Gulfport, thanks to regular service offered by Crowley Liner Services. But to get their share of the growing Cuban pie, an interesting race is now shaping up between Port Manatee and the Port of Tampa. The region's two shipping hubs, which also happen to be the geographically closest U.S. ports to Havana, are jockeying to position themselves for trade with the island neighbor.

Thanks to foot-dragging by the Port of Tampa commissioners, the smaller competitor is leading the race. Over the past couple of years, Port Manatee officials have quietly cultivated ties with Cuban officials. While Tampa port commissioners received repeated beatings from businesspeople eager to establish trade with Cuba, Port Manatee - at only 320 nautical miles from Mariel - became the region's first port to reestablish commercial ties, with a shipment of animal feed in January. This first Cuba shipment in 42 years from the region was followed by another shipment this summer.

Crowning these achievements, Port Manatee sent a five-member delegation to Cuba Nov. 17-21. Accompanied by Washington-based trade consultant Kirby Jones, the five-member group, led by Port Director David McDonald and Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, met with officials of food import monopolist Alimport S.A. and port operator Asport. Manatee port officials signed a memorandum of understanding with Alimport to increase food exports to Cuba, something that only the ports of Mobile and Corpus Christi have done. Also while in Cuba, the group announced a shipment of 250 heads of beef cattle and bulls. The shipment, which includes 80 Brangus heifers from Jim Strickland's ranch in Manatee County, was arranged by Naples-based J.P. Wright & Co., a company run by Lykes heir John Parke Wright. The Florida cows are expected to embark at Port Manatee early next year. Interestingly, a crucial player at the Port of Tampa, A.R. Savage & Son Inc., is advising Wright on shipping, letters of credit and payment in the cattle deal.

However, Tampa is not idle. Pushed by local shippers and agencies, Tampa port officials finally traveled to Cuba this summer. They didn't return with commitments, but dashing ahead of the port, a local lawyer and a businessman partnered to initiate the first Cuba shipment from Tampa. While on a pier to witness the loading of 1.5 million pounds of frozen chicken on a Caribe Services freighter H.F. Salhman, Daniel J. Fernandez and Mike Mauricio told media they hoped that this could become a regular monthly food shipment service from Tampa to Cuba.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist. He carries a German passport, is married to a Mexican, and publishes a trade monthly, Cuba Trade & Investment News. He can be reached at [email protected].

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