By Ty Johnson | The Brownsville Herald


A high-ranking official within the U.S. Department of Commerce was in the Rio Grande Valley this week to tour the Port of Brownsville, visit border crossings and discuss the importance of international trade with local officials.


Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce Walter Bastian spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Bastian said he felt that he had discussed nearly all of the area’s upcoming projects, from the dredging of the port to the West Rail Bridge and everything in between.


Bastian, in town at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Browns-ville), has spent his career dealing with trade in the Western Hemisphere, with a special concentration on Latin America and the Caribbean.


Bastian noted that although the hot topics in trade recently have centered around European and Asian markets, the United States still benefits greatly from open trade agreements with its geographical neighbors.


Despite growth on the other side of the world, Bastian said, 40 percent of U.S. exports remain in the West. He also noted that of the 20 countries with which the United States has free trade agreements, 12 of them are on this side of the globe.


“This is where business is happening, and it’s a steady market share,” he said.


His work in Washington focuses on expanding trade with all nations in the hemisphere, but he said his tour along the South Texas border allowed him to focus on trade with Mexico, arguably one of the county’s most important trade partners.


“This is a very robust relationship,” he said, noting that the Valley’s geographical placement between the two major economies makes local trade near the border a matter of national importance. “To be competitive today, we have to be able to move the goods across.”


Bastian said all that was needed for economic growth was a partnership between the public, private and higher education sectors, but he admitted that it was much more difficult than it sounds.


“There is no simple answer to it,” he said, though he noted time and again that the local officials he met seemed to understand what was required. “I didn’t get the sense that they weren’t committed to it.


“I think we’re going about this the right way.”


After a Monday tour of the port, Bastian spent Tuesday in a number of briefings at the Brownsville Metro La Plaza Terminal. There he met with officials to discuss Bi-National Economic Development, a comprehensive plan that includes interests within Brownsville, the Brownsville Economic Development Corp. and neighbors ranging from Matamoros to Harlingen. The plan also addresses the Maquila Association of Matamoros and ship recycling and projects being led at the Port of Brownsville.


Although a number of initiatives in the past have tried to unite all stakeholders in the region, Bastian said, the stars appear to have aligned and might allow for some real progress to be made in the region.