President urges special treatment case at ACS summit By Pascal Fletcher
Guyana Chronicle
December 13, 2001

PORLAMAR, Venezuela, (Reuters) - Rhetoric competed with reality at a summit of Caribbean leaders yesterday that agreed on an ambitious regional tourism plan but anguished over the economic and political challenges of a planned U.S.-led hemispheric free trade zone.

Most of the rhetoric at the two-day meeting of the Association of Caribbean States came from the presidents of Venezuela and Cuba, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, who used the event to voice strident anti-free-market views.

But while the revolutionary duo railed against the evils of unbridled ``neoliberal'' capitalism, other Caribbean leaders talked pragmatically of seeking concrete economic safeguards for their countries in the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Venezuela's Chavez said he viewed the FTAA plan, which aims to set up an Americas-wide free trade zone stretching from Canada to Chile by the end of 2005, as ``unviable.''

``It's a good idea to be looking for an alternative...The FTAA cannot be proposed as the only option,'' Chavez told a news conference ending the third summit of the 25-nation association, which was held on the Venezuelan tourist island of Margarita.

But the tough-talking former paratrooper offered no clear explanation of what a realistic alternative to the free trade area might be, and he appeared to find few backers for his suggestion.

Guyana's President Barrat Jagdeo said Caribbean states were committed to entering the trade zone, which was agreed on earlier this year at a summit in Quebec of leaders from across the Americas, excluding only Cuban leader Castro.

But Jagdeo said Caribbean countries, especially small island states, were demanding a prior agreement on special safeguards to protect their weak and vulnerable economies once trade barriers were lifted across the continent.

``Unless we have special differential treatment...then it's clear (the free-trade area) will not help us. It will wipe our economies out,'' he told the joint news conference.

Jagdeo added that the call for special treatment for small developing countries, which was incorporated in the final statement of the summit in Margarita, was an ``absolute precondition'' of zone entry for Caribbean countries.

The Guyanese president proposed setting up a Regional Integration Fund in the Caribbean to soften the impact on the region's weakest countries of unfettered free trade and competition with powers like the United States and Canada.

Panamanian Trade Minister Joaquin Jacome announced that his country was willing to act as the formal organisational headquarters of a future Americas-wide free trade area.

The 17 heads of state and government and other delegation chiefs at the Margarita summit signed an agreement to create a Sustainable Tourism Zone across the geographic space of the association, which groups Caribbean island states and Central and South American countries with Caribbean coastlines.

The initiative will seek to preserve the region's environment and diverse cultures as well as involving local communities in developing tourism. It comes at a time when the Caribbean tourist industry is still reeling from the effects of the Sept. 11 suicide attacks in the United States.

The Margarita summit's final communique included a condemnation of terrorism and a call on the United States to end its long-standing trade sanctions against communist Cuba.

Chavez and his older Cuban counterpart, Castro, who are friends and political allies, stamped their powerful personalities on the two-day meeting from the start.

The two voluble speakers kept up a permanent public dialogue, monopolising the debates and projecting their left-wing views of the world, their region and its problems.

Other leaders who attended, such as Colombian President Andres Pastrana, kept a lower profile.

Castro, who is 75, and Chavez, 47, exchanged mutual expressions of praise and admiration during the end-of-summit news conference.

The Cuban president proudly described himself as ``anti-FTAA'' and was the only other leader to express open support for Chavez's undefined suggestion of an alternative to the U.S.-backed trade zone. Chavez proposed calling his grouping ``the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas'' after Latin America's 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar.

The summit gave the Venezuelan leader a welcome break from domestic politics, where he faces powerful opposition to his left-leaning policies from business and labour leaders, who organised a one-day anti-government protest strike on Monday.

The 12-hour stoppage brought much of oil-rich Venezuela to a halt.