Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez will lead a trade mission to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in October, showing off opportunities to U.S. companies following approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
The trade trip, announced Thursday, will be the first to the region after last week's congressional passage of the politically contentious CAFTA.
The agreement, which passed the House of Representatives by a two-vote margin, was signed by President George W. Bush on Tuesday.
The trade pact — with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic — eliminates trade barriers and opens the region wider to U.S. goods and services. It also lowers obstacles to investment in the area and strengthens protections for intellectual property.
Gutierrez and a group of U.S. businesses that have not yet been selected will travel to Guatemala City, Guatemala; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and San Salvador, El Salvador, the department said.
"We want to make sure that we fully take advantage of this very powerful trade agreement," Gutierrez said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We are going to be introducing businesses to representatives of the Chambers of Commerce, industry trade associations, potential business partners and government officials so that they can learn first hand what they need to do to do business in Central America."
Gutierrez said he anticipates that 10 to 15 business representatives will accompany him on the trip, Oct. 16-22. They might include those in automotive parts and services equipment, chemicals, aerospace, food processing and packaging, pharmaceuticals, printing and graphics, and textiles, the department said.
Critics said the trade measure would cost U.S. jobs, particularly in the sugar and textile industries, a claim Gutierrez and other supporters disputed.
"We believe that this should be a net contributor (to jobs) given that we'll be able to export more to Central America," the commerce secretary said. U.S. exports to the region are now about $15 billion.
Gutierrez envisions the trip more as an educational opportunity than a dealmaking one for companies.
"If during that trip something does arise and it leads to a business deal — that's probably a stroke of luck," he said.