Diplomats gathered in Seattle yesterday to lobby for a trade pact with Central America that proponents say could expand the market access for Northwest businesses.

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Ambassadors and officials from Central America made a passionate plea in Seattle yesterday for U.S. passage of a regional trade deal they see as a vital tool to help lift their countries out of poverty.

Their visit provoked shouts from protesters outside the meeting, who said the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) would disrupt those economies, drawing parallels with the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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But the officials dismissed that notion. “NAFTA and CAFTA rhyme,” said Maria Bennaton, minister for economics and trade for the embassy of Honduras in Washington, D.C. “But that’s about where the similarity ends.”

Debate over CAFTA has taken on the significance of a quasi-referendum on trade agreements. With multilateral deals under the World Trade Organization stalled, a failure by Congress to ratify CAFTA could be seen as a bad sign for the U.S. strategy of pursuing regional pacts.

Yesterday’s visit, sponsored by the Washington Council on International Trade, was part of a multi-city tour by the ambassadors of El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic to stir support ahead of a U.S. vote expected this year.

For Washington state, the deal could lift exports of wine, fruit, jets and software. Microsoft is running newspaper ads supporting the agreement.

Exports from Washington state to the region were $155 million in 2003, more than triple the previous year’s total, according to the Commerce Department.

Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said Washington’s apple sales to the region slipped after Chile signed a trade pact with some Central American countries. CAFTA would help reverse that, he said, by granting the U.S. the same access to those markets that Chile now enjoys.

While acknowledging that CAFTA isn’t perfect, the officials said it is a vital tool for development and forms part of a package of government and market changes that would promote stability and democracy, and energize the economies of the Central American countries.

The officials also were keenly aware of the costs of not signing a deal, which would leave their nations outside the circle of countries that enjoy the lower tariffs and easier trade that such agreements allow.

“A vote against CAFTA is vote in favor of China,” said Rene Rodriguez, El Salvador’s ambassador to the U.S. He and others noted that Central America is an important partner with the U.S. in textiles, coffee, computer chips and tourism.

Critics say NAFTA has produced unemployment in certain farm and factory sectors in Mexico, while also creating low-wage jobs in border factories that have eliminated jobs and eroded wages in the U.S.

“In Mexico, NAFTA displaced a lot of people off the land,” said Juan Jose Bocanegra, a Mexican native who was among the protesters at yesterday’s meeting and who works on labor issues in the U.S. “It created the ability for Iowa corn to go into Mexico. They destroyed industries in Mexico and replaced them with U.S. industries.”

Some U.S. critics say CAFTA would worsen the record U.S. trade deficit, since the poor economies of Central America are likely to export more to the U.S. than they could buy.

The Central American officials said that many environmental and labor issues that arose under NAFTA had been addressed in CAFTA. They also said the deals have garnered 70 percent support at home, although they acknowledged that one of the countries represented, Nicaragua, has not signed it.

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com