Compiled By Jill Jusko The United States is set to launch a round of free-trade negotiations with the Central American nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Working negotiations on the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, will begin Jan. 27 in Costa Rica. Participants hope to complete the agreement to eliminate tariffs and other barriers to trade by December 2003, the Office of the United States Trade Representative reported Jan. 8. "This agreement will . . . complement our vital work on the Free Trade Area of the Americas," says U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick. Among organizations welcoming the free-trade talks is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C. "A commercially strong agreement will open the door to new opportunities for businesses and workers in the U.S. as well as Central America," says Chamber Vice President for the Western Hemisphere John Murphy. The Grocery Manufacturers of America trade association said the negotiations must include tariff reductions for sugar imports. "Under CAFTA, Central America can become an important source of raw ingredients, such as sugar or peanuts, for the U.S. food and beverage industry," says GMA Director of International Trade Sarah Thorn. "However, if restrictive tariff-quotas are not reduced or eliminated for sugar and other commodities, the opportunities for increased trade will be significantly reduced -- undermining the ultimate goal of this trade agreement."