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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Ambassador Rob Portman
United States Trade Representative

June 6, 2005

Ambassador Rob Portman
Hi, I’m Rob Portman, the United States Trade Representative. Today, President Bush spoke at the Organization of American States about the importance of the U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (or CAFTA-DR). This agreement will eliminate immediately or phase out tariffs on a trade relationship worth more than $32 billion. We trade more with Central America and the Dominican Republic than we do with Russia, India and Indonesia combined.

This agreement is important because it strengthens political and economic freedom in our neighborhood, levels the playing field for American workers and farmers, and is an important tool to help American producers compete in the global economy.

I’m happy to take questions on CAFTA-DR or any other trade issue you may wish to discuss.

Len, from Apache Junction, AZ writes:
Mr. Portman, I read online that The Central American - Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) is currently not in effect. How long do you think it will pass in Congress?Thank you for taking questions today.

Ambassador Rob Portman
Len, that’s an excellent question. The Bush Administration has made the U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement a top priority, and we are hoping that Congress will vote on the agreement soon.

Gabriel, from Ohio writes:
What are the government projections of the impact on the account balance from the Cafta-RD treaty?If Cafta-RD is put into effect, what are the government projections for its impact on Nafta?

Ambassador Rob Portman
Gabriel, thanks for your questions. I’ll answer the second one first, and I think the acronym you’re looking for is CAFTA-DR, which reflects the addition of the Dominican Republic to five Central American signatories in this agreement. CAFTA-DR opens markets in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to American farmers, ranchers, workers and services providers. NAFTA opened up markets in Mexico and Canada, nearly doubling U.S. exports to those two countries in its first decade. We conduct more than $1.7 billion in trilateral trade with Mexico and Canada every day.

Regarding the trade account, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that this agreement will reduce the overall trade deficit by $756 million. This means it will help reduce our trade deficit!

It’s important to note that while there is a lot of focus on imports, U.S. exports are at record levels – over $1 trillion. Also, in 2004, U.S. exports grew by 12.3%, the strongest growth in the value of U.S. exports since 1995. Our trade agenda is focused on continuing to open markets for U.S. exports. Open markets benefit America and contribute to our prosperity and high standard of living. Putting up walls and isolating America is not a prescription for sustained economic success and prosperity.

J.P., from Boston writes:
If U.S. agricultural products hadn't been on the decline over the past few years, would the U.S. still see this as an important step?

Ambassador Rob Portman
U.S. agricultural exports are very strong, and were $63.9 billion just last year. More importantly, Central America and the Dominican Republic could be large markets for U.S. farm products. Today, more than 99 percent of all the farm products of Central America come into the U.S. duty-free. But U.S. farmers pay double-digit tariffs when they try to sell their products in Central America. What CAFTA-DR will do is level the playing field, opening Central America and the Dominican Republic to the best farm products in the world: U.S. farm products. This is why the American Farm Bureau Federation and more than 50 other agricultural groups around the country strongly support CAFTA-DR.

Annie, from Michigan writes:
I keep hearing about CAFTA and the sugar industry--it is very important in Michigan and I know some farmers are concerned about the affects of it. Could you please explain the other components other than sugar as well?

Ambassador Rob Portman
Well, Annie, I'm glad you asked that question because virtually every agricultural and industrial sector in the United States supports the agreement. Just the other day, more than fifty major farm groups in the United States wrote President Bush a letter expressing strong support for CAFTA, because they see Central America as a great market for U.S. farmers and ranchers. And more than 150 business associations also support the CAFTA. Sugar was handled with great care in the agreement. The total amount of increased sugar coming into the United States as a result of CAFTA will amount to about 1.5% of U.S. production, or about two packets of sugar per American, per week. It's a very small amount, and we were careful to make sure that U.S. sugar growers won't be hurt by CAFTA.

Marvin, from Los Angeles writes:
Ambassador,Could you please tell me the history of this treaty? NAFTA seems to have been around quite a while and I wonder why this treaty has just started now? How did this come into being?

Ambassador Rob Portman
Marvin, thanks for your question. We just passed the 10-year anniversary of NAFTA. Over the last decade, the U.S. economy has grown strongly, millions of new jobs have been created, exports to Mexico have skyrocketed, and new opportunities have been created. Leaders in Central America see that success and want to be part of it. They know that open markets and free and fair trade will generate wealth and help reduce poverty in their countries. And since about 80 percent of everything we import from the region is already duty-free, the U.S. isn't giving up very much to get access to a new and large market right in our own neighborhood. The United States negotiated CAFTA in 2003 and early 2004, and then there were legal procedures needed before it was finalized in the summer of 2004.

Lori, from Indiana writes:
Ambassador Portman,I know that you recently began your new position. Do you like it? And is it much different than your job as a congressman?

thank you, Lori

Ambassador Rob Portman
Well Lori, I've been on my new job for less than 60 days, but I am enjoying the challenge. I've gone from representing seven counties in southwestern Ohio to representing the United States of America in trade talks. At the same time, I think having been an elected Member of Congress gives me some helpful insights that I take into negotiations with foreign leaders. I know what it's like to go to a town-hall meeting in my district and talk to constituents who are worried about their jobs, about putting their kids through school, about meeting the challenges of foreign competition. I will always be grateful to the people of Ohio for the chance to represent them in Congress, and I'm grateful to President Bush for this new opportunity to represent our country.

Mary, from Neenah, WI writes:
Since the countries involved with CAFTA are some of the world's poorest, how would America benefit from this trade agreement? Would not US industry move further south, thereby guaranteeing a much cheaper labor market and a loss of American jobs (even more so than NAFTA)? I just don't see how America can possibly gain from this

Ambassador Rob Portman
Mary, the CAFTA countries are poorer than we are, but they are a good market for U.S. companies and farmers. We already trade more with Central America than we trade with some developed countries like Australia, and CAFTA would expand those opportunities even further. And it's important to remember that 80 percent of everything we import from Central America today is already coming into our country duty-free. The main effect of CAFTA isn't to open our market, because we're already very open. The main effect of CAFTA will be to open Central America and the Dominican Republic to U.S. goods and services. That's a great opportunity to gain increased sales and to support U.S. jobs.

Ambassador Rob Portman

Thank you for your very good questions on this important trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic. This is an extraordinary opportunity for both Americans and our neighbors in the South – it is truly a win-win agreement.

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