Support Sought for Free Trade Agreement; Would Link U.S. and Six Hispanic Countries

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Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Bush administration is working to build support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement with a focus on boosting economic ties in the face of rising competition from China and mobilizing support among the growing Hispanic population in the United States.

CAFTA, with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, would be the biggest trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement and is shaping up as fierce political battle in Congress.

"I feel very good about where we are now," said Christopher Padilla, assistant U.S. trade representative for public liaison.

Mr. Padilla is scheduled to join ambassadors from the CAFTA nations in Charlotte, N.C., today and Raleigh, N.C., tomorrow to promote the free-trade agreement to skeptical textile manufacturers and workers.

The textile industry is particularly concerned about competition from China, and the administration is hoping to convince companies that an economic alliance within the Western Hemisphere will make them more competitive.

"I do believe this will be a good opportunity ... to lay everything on the table. I think it will be a good thing," said Mike Hubbard, vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, an industry group that, reflecting a split in its membership, has not taken a position on the pact.

The road show is part of a multicity effort to convince businesses that they will benefit from CAFTA and to build support among U.S. Hispanics for closer ties with their home countries.

Central American and Dominican ambassadors have traveled to seven U.S. cities with either close economic ties to or significant populations from the region - New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, Tampa, Fla. …