(Dec. 12) Tree fruit shippers were hoping for a successful conclusion to negotiations to create a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Central America.

Those talks were ongoing in Washington, D.C., the week of Dec. 8.

Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash., said early indications point to an agreement that would eliminate tree fruit tariffs that now mostly range from 15% to 25%.

“We are trying to achieve zero tariffs for apples, pears and cherries, and if we get it we will be very enthusiastic supporters of CAFTA (the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement),” he said.

Schlect noted that Chile and other competitors now enjoy free access to Central America, so a trade agreement is needed between the U.S. and Central American countries to even the playing field for U.S. exporters.

For example, Guatemala has 12% tariffs on the first 10,000 metric tons of U.S. apples, and that tariff is raised to 25% for all volume after that. The country of 13 million allows duty-free access to Chile.

CAFTA is important to the Bush administration in view of the September collapse of global trade talks in Mexico and the reduced expectations for the 34-nation Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Agricultural imports from Central America totaled about $1.9 billion in 2002, while U.S. agricultural exports to the region were $1.25 billion. By contrast, U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico in 2002 were $7.2 billion, and shipments of Mexican agricultural goods to the U.S. totaled $5.5 billion.

The U.S. began negotiations in January with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to eliminate tariffs and other barriers to trade in agriculture, goods, investment and services.

The Bush administration timetable calls for signing the agreement by April, with a vote in Congress by next summer.

Opposition to CAFTA has come from the textile and sugar industries, in addition to some labor and environmental groups.