(Jan. 5) When the progress of global trade negotiations is measured in decades, it is refreshing to see the business of opening trade accomplished with a relatively urgent pace.

That is the case with the Central American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. negotiators have concluded negotiations with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua on schedule in mid-December.

Costa Rica may join the accord before it is submitted to Congress for consideration next year.

Sugar and textile interests in the U.S. may fight the agreement, but congressional approval seems likely.

That the agreement was accomplished with comparative haste isn’t the best quality of CAFTA. Instead, for many fresh produce exporters, it offers the prospect of an immediate elimination of tariffs that range from 10% to 25% for such commodities as apples, pears and grapes.

While the text of the agreement isn’t yet public, industry leaders are confident that CAFTA represents a clear win for export opportunities for the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry.

After all, Mexico has shown to be one of the most important growth markets for exporters of deciduous fruit in the past decade. Like Mexico, production of deciduous fruit is limited in Central America, and rising incomes should fuel greater demand for grapes, apples and pears.

While these Central American markets aren’t huge, it is essential that U.S. produce exporters maintain their competitive position relative to suppliers like Chile — a country that has been much more aggressive in negotiating free trade agreements in the past decade than the U.S.

The Bush administration is making haste to make up ground lost because of the disappointing results of the WTO talks and the uneven outcome of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. So far, that determination has served the industry well.