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Florida sugar, citrus against Free Trade Area of the Americas plan

(Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Peter Wallsten, The Miami Herald, 11/05/03: Listeners to Spanish-language radio in South Florida tuned in last week to hear a surprising political ad aired by the state's sugar makers.

The industry is usually happy to help Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother, President Bush, both of whom have benefited from millions of dollars in campaign contributions from sugar companies and their executives.

But this message was sure to make the Bush family cringe.

''This industry, so closely tied to our community, is threatened by a proposal being made by the administration of President Bush,'' the narrator warns sternly, predicting job losses and economic devastation if plans proceed for a ''Bush free trade plan.''

The ad, aired repeatedly on Radio Mambi along with a toned-down English version on other stations, illustrates the politically harrowing tightrope the Bushes must walk: Pressing a hemispheric free trade agreement called the Free Trade Area of the Americas at the same time the president prepares for what could be a tough reelection battle.

The Bush brothers say the agreement is vital for diversifying the nation's economy and spurring jobs -- especially in South Florida if Miami is chosen as the trade pact's headquarters.

But Big Sugar and citrus growers, two of Florida's most influential industries, are fighting key parts of the deal, wary that ending tariffs would expose them to competition from foreign companies that benefit from cheap labor and loose environmental restrictions.

While the two industries wield limited national clout against high-tech companies and other business interests pushing free trade, they are flexing their considerable political muscle in Florida, the state that put President Bush into office by 537 votes and remains the nation's largest presidential swing state.

Touting a combined economic impact of $12-billion and more than 100,000 jobs in Florida, the two industries have embarked on aggressive campaigns designed to remind White House trade negotiators that if they craft a deal harmful to sugar or citrus, they do so at the president's electoral peril.

''If we were in North Dakota and didn't have 27 Electoral College votes, it wouldn't have the same impact,'' said Andy LaVigne, executive director of Florida Citrus Mutual, the primary lobbying arm of the state's orange and grapefruit growers and juice makers.


That tension will be the backdrop as Gov. Bush and his brother's top lieutenants host a crucial round of negotiations in Miami Nov. 17-21.

The governor traversed the free-trade tightrope during a recent speech on Key Biscayne to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, where he promised to ''shamelessly'' protect the state's agriculture industries against ''all comers,'' even as he and his brother fight for the FTAA.

''As we diversify our economy to draw higher wage jobs, as we invest in the types of research that will spawn the new industries of the 21st century, we can't turn our backs on agriculture,'' he said.

Free trade critics in the two Florida industries are forming an unlikely alliance with tens of thousands of organized labor activists and other anti-globalization protesters expected to attempt to overshadow the trade talks, as they have done at similar meetings in Seattle and Cancun.

The sugar industry has ramped up its efforts recently by forming a new political committee, the Sugar Industry Labor Management Committee, to fund radio ads and other efforts. The Spanish-language ads hail sugar as part of the community's ''heritage,'' a message targeted directly at Cuban Americans critical to President Bush's reelection.

Citrus producers have launched what growers call their most aggressive PR campaign ever, designed specifically to bolster the industry's image in the eyes of Florida voters. Florida Citrus Mutual has hired a powerhouse Republican polling firm, the Tarrance Group, to promote the popularity of a product that has long defined Florida's image nationally.

Citrus has signed up big-league Washington lobbyist Bill Paxon, who became a George W. Bush fundraising ''pioneer'' after raising $100,000 for his reelection campaign.

The industry also has aired TV ads -- largely in swing vote areas around Interstate 4 in citrus-rich Central Florida -- featuring Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden. The $4.5-million campaign is dubbed ''Citrus Matters.''

Orange growers' biggest fear is that, by eliminating their protections, a handful of Brazilian producers will corner the U.S. juice market with prices set far lower than the Florida companies can afford to match. Brazil and Florida currently account for 85 percent of the world's orange juice.

''The political underpinning here is don't mess around with the state's second-largest industry that is predominantly grown in the I-4 corridor of a state that narrowly went for the president,'' said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, a Bartow Republican whose family grows citrus and who has lobbied President Bush and his senior political advisor, Karl Rove, against eliminating tariffs that would aid Brazilian juice producers.

Putnam said citrus advocates know their greatest leverage comes in the midst of the 2004 campaign. The pitch: Thousands of registered Democrats in citrus-producing counties who backed Bush in 2000 will have no qualms about switching allegiances if they believe their jobs are in jeopardy.

Past statements by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick indicate he is treading softly when it comes to Florida's industries. He held a contentious meeting last year in Winter Haven with some of the state's biggest citrus growers, listening to their fears but refusing to say what the final deal would mean for them. Zoellick has said all options are open to negotiation.

So far, Gov. Bush and the Florida business lobby pushing both for the agreement and for Miami's role as the permanent headquarters have offered a nuanced approach that tries to assuage all players.


Bush spokeswoman Jill Bratina called their goal ''free trade but fair trade,'' offering a nod to the two industries that have enjoyed close ties to the governor's office.

Aides to the governor say he is carefully lobbying his brother's administration. But they acknowledge that Gov. Bush's advocacy for citrus is angering Brazil, one of the most important countries involved in the negotiations and a key player in deciding whether Miami will get the headquarters.

A September letter to the governor from Brazil's ambassador to the United States, Rubens Barbosa, chastises Bush for his quotes in a Florida newspaper backing the citrus tariffs and suggesting that Brazil would have unfair advantages.

''I am afraid, Mr. Governor, that you have apparently been seriously misinformed by your staff on this issue,'' Barbosa wrote. ''Brazil has a growing expatriate community living in Southern Florida, creating wealth and paying taxes locally. It is unfortunate to see this very positive dynamic tarnished by untrue allegations of unfair trade practices.''