Will State visit to Chile yield results?

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With Dr Keith Rowley scheduled to make a State visit to Chile on 29 May 2017, nothing in the way of an agenda or list of key objectives has been disclosed, leaving some to question whether the visit will yield benefits, or just create a bilateral agreement that will be parked and forgotten.

The question arises out of almost two years of the Rowley Administration harping on economic challenges, but avoiding discussion on agreements currently in force with potential new markets waiting to be tapped by local manufacturers, exporters and service companies.

The possibility of a partial scope trade agreement with Chile was originally pursued by the previous administration and its progression has been on hold since 2015.

Finance Minister, Colm Imbert, spoke on the State visit to Chile during a post-Cabinet press briefing on 25 May 2017, where he sought to give exhaustive, almost circumlocutory logistical details, following harsh Government criticisms over profligate spending by extravagant Cabinet Ministers.

Not to be outdone, de-facto spokesperson for Dr Rowley,and Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, andMinister in the Ministry of the Attorney General, and a member of the Chile delegation, Stuart Young, said: “It may not be known but Chile is currently the largest importer of Trinidadian LNG. So we will be pursuing those conversations as well as looking at some of their renewable energy projects.”

Young has been a member of a number of official Government delegations to various countries including Dr Rowley’s meeting in Houston, Texas with BP Upstream Chief Executive Bernard Looney, bpTT Regional President Norman Christie and BP Chief Operating Officer Andy Hopwood. This country’s Energy Minister was not present at this meeting.

Trinidad and Tobago subsequently lost a billion dollar bpTT rig-fabrication project.

More than the relevance of delegates and the frequency of the trips abroad, however, neither Imbert, nor Young discussed the objectives of the visit, or the status of bilateral and partial scope agreements that are already in force, which could potentially see an increase in Foreign Exchange earnings for Trinidad and Tobago.

What about these?

At present, at least five agreements are in force, including:

  • Trinidad and Tobago-Panama Partial Scope Trade Agreement;
  • Trinidad and Tobago – Guatemala Partial Scope Trade Agreement;
  • World Trade Organisation (WTO) – Agreement on Trade Facilitation;
  • Trinidad and Tobago – El Salvador Partial Scope Trade Agreement;
  • The Cariforum/EC Economic Partnership Agreement;
    Little or no mention has been made of these by Dr Rowley, the Foreign Affairs Minister, or the Trade Minister since taking office in 2015, despite the potential for local manufacturing and service sector companies.

The agreement with Panama was meant to facilitate the progressive reduction and eventual elimination of trade and tariff barriers between both countries.

The agreement with Guatemala sought to establish common ground on issues such as market access, trade facilitation and customs procedures, services and investment and legal impacting trade between both countries.

The World Trade Organisation agreement was meant to enhance Trinidad and Tobago’s ability to develop policies that would aid in our diversification and reduce dependency on energy. Trinidad and Tobago was successful in a review of its trade policy from the Third Trade Policy Review in Geneva.

The El Salvador agreement saw enhanced market access for local exporters to approximately 7 million people.

The Cariforum/EC Economic Partnership Agreementprovided enhanced market access for domestic exporters to approximately 505 million persons in the European Union market, an issue which became particularly topical following the vote by Great Britain to exit the EU.

Of particular importance, especially for new markets, was the signing of the Trinidad and Tobago – Cuba Tourism Cooperation Agreement in March 2015.

These and other agreements represent potential trade opportunities that open access to new markets of over half a billion people, and billions of dollars in potential FOREX earnings.

Dodging questions

Rather than discussing the status of these and other agreements, both Imbert and Young hustled to sidestep questions about free-spending Cabinet Ministers, two of whom have been in the spotlight recently.

In documents said to be leaked by irate Civil Servants, Tourism Minister, Shamfa Cudjoe grabbed the spotlight after racking up a mobile phone bill of almost $59,000 in the space of 96 hours on an official trip to the Bahamas.

Cabinet Ministers, including Imbert, rushed to her defense saying that it was not extravagance, but rather that roaming charges in that country were excessively high.

With the embers of Cudjoe’s roaming scandal still burning, Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Darryl Smith took the spotlight following revelations of a $92,000 bill for a weekend romp in Tobago for 12 persons.

The Sports Minister claimed that the Tobago House of Assembly Sports Awards was not the only event he and his team of 12 attended. Smith claimed to have “done a number of things” including a tour the Dwight York Stadium, a meeting the Youth Council and a meeting with the THA Secretary for Sport.

Smith said in a brief telephone interview that the Ministry team stayed at the Magdalena Grand Hotel, so that the spending would have benefitted Government’s revenue.

In another interview with a daily newspaper, however, Smith said he was not aware of the bill and it was the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary “who looks after these administrative matters”.

Switching gears

Under increasing pressure from leading Journalists on the profligate spending of Cabinet Ministers, attempts were made to switch gears to a purported reduction in travel costs for Dr Rowley’s delegation to Chile.

Boasting that it would have costed more than $1 million to fly on American Airlines, an official statement said Dr Rowley chose to fly business class on Copa Airlines, at a cost of $375,000.
Members of the delegation include:

  • Minister of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs, Dennis Moses;
  • Minister of Energy and Energy Industries, Franklin Khan;
  • Minister of Trade and Industry, Paula Gopee-Scoon;
  • Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister and Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs, Stuart Young and
  • Former PNM MP, Amery Browne, who is now the Ambassador to the Republic of Chile.

With Chilean Ambassador, Fernando Schmidt Ariztia having expressed his country’s keen interest in expanding trade with Trinidad and Tobago, it remains to be seen what is negotiated by the Trinidad and Tobago delegation, and whether any resulting agreement will be shelved after making its full run of Government driven publicity and public relations.

In 2016, Chile exported US$17 million in goods to this country, while it imported US$622 million in goods from Trinidad and Tobago. The majority of imports from Trinidad and Tobago was in Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), amounting to some US$573 million.

While Young, in an off-hand comment on the State visit, said that Trinidad and Tobago will be “looking at some of their (Chile’s) renewable energy projects”, no mention was made about this country’s export capacity and the sectors that will be prioritised.
On the potential for a robust trade agreement between both countries, Ambassador Ariztia was reported as saying: “We have proposed, why not make Piarco a hub for distributing goods for the entire Caricom region? But we do not have an air services agreement.”

The Ambassador said Chile currently channels its exports through Miami, but with an appropriate agreement, Piarco International Airport can become the preferred trade hub.

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