PhillyDeals: Chilean president visits region to talk trade

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President Michelle Bachelet is joined at the Port of Wilmington by several Chilean laborers who work there. She will also visit Philadelphia on her trade mission.

At home in Chile, Michelle Bachelet - that nation's president, elected to her second term in a landslide vote in 2013 - works a tough balancing act.

Her Pacific nation is home to robust capitalists - mine owners, winemakers, fruit growers whose Southern Hemisphere seasons enable them to supply Americans in winter - and militant communist and anarchist groups, which press hard, and often successfully, for taxing the rich to pay for college tuition, retirement plans, health insurance. A socialist and a single mother, Bachelet governs in coalition with the Christian Democrats. On Monday in New York, she presided over a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council to help prevent wars.

But in Wilmington and Philadelphia this week, Bachelet is all business. At a warehouse at the Delaware port on Tuesday, she drew a crowd of U.S. and Chilean businesspeople and workers, and a collection of pro-free-trade Democrats - led by U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), U.S. Rep. John Carney (D., Del.), and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, also a Democrat, who worked as a young banker in Chile in the 1980s before becoming a Comcast executive.

Scores of bright-jacketed Chilean expatriate workers who inspect fruit at the warehouses their companies share in Wilmington, and at the Holt family port complex in Gloucester City, turned out to welcome their president. "They are never a threat; there's enough work for everybody," Julius Cephas, president of International Longshoremans' Association Local 1694, told me. He said both American and Chilean workers are pushing to expand the Wilmington port so it can handle more cargo. The local's business agent, Eric Dorsey, says the union workforce has grown in recent years, from several hundred to around 1,000, thanks largely to Chilean trade.

Philadelphia-area ports are also looking for more cargo to send to Chile, noted Carney. "That's a big issue," he said.

Yet the United States has so far gotten the better of this particular trade pact. Chile's yearly imports from the U.S. have risen sixfold, to $15 billion, since the countries signed a free-trade agreement in 2003, according to Juan Gabriel Valdes-Soublette, Chile's ambassador to the U.S. U.S. imports from Chile have risen less and not quite as fast - to $9.7 billion, four times 2003 levels. Bachelet wants to boost U.S. imports to make the relationship more balanced. "We are convinced we can do much more," she told the crowd before leaving for a Chilean-American business dinner in Philadelphia.

While Delaware's conservative top Democrats mostly back free trade, the head of the state's largest municipal government, New County Council Executive Tom Gordon, a former police chief, blames trade deals for wiping out two auto manufacturing plants and a steel mill from the county since 2007. "Free-trade agreements have destroyed our well-paying factory jobs," he told me. But Gordon agreed that the Chile produce trade, at least, has been good for Delaware. Gesturing to pallets of sweet South American grapes that formed the backdrop to Bachelet's appearance, Gordon concluded, "Up here, we don't grow fruit in the wintertime."


JoeD@phillynews.com

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