In a rare meeting with members of the U.S. Congress that ended Tuesday, Caribbean trade ministers called for commercial ties that would offer ”mutual benefits” to their small economies and the United States.

Trade and security issues topped the agenda of the two-day talks between the Caribbean Congressional Caucus and trade officials from the Caribbean Community (Caricom). The closed-door meeting, arranged by the Inter-American Economic Council in Washington, was held in Miami’s Four Seasons Hotel.

”I called for enhancement of the economic partnership of the United States and the Caribbean and said it must be based on our interdependence and mutual benefits,” said Richard Bernal, the top trade negotiator for Caricom.

”The Free Trade Area of the Americas can contribute to that enhancement,” said the former Jamaican ambassador to the United States who now directs the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery, which is negotiating the FTAA.

Participants noted that U.S. lawmakers rarely have had the opportunity to meet with Caribbean officials to discuss issues of mutual interest.

”This meeting has been very significant,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., a member of the caucus.

Dame Billie Miller, Barbados’ minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, outlined a list of Caribbean concerns, including ”the shifting of major responsibility for development” to the developing countries themselves.

In a prepared text, Miller criticized the setbacks in global trade talks in the World Trade Organization but also had strong words for the deadlock in the FTAA negotiations.

”We cannot afford to allow them to flounder on the rock of intransigence of some participating countries,” Miller said, adding that Caricom also looked with disfavor on the idea of holding informal regional talks without inviting all negotiators.

The FTAA negotiations have faltered since last November’s meeting of ministers in Miami. Despite having scaled back the talks’ scope, the Washington negotiators are deadlocked with the Mercosur countries of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. There are disagreements on farm subsidies and access and over such issues as intellectual-property protection, investment in service industries and investor rights.

Under the FTAA, special consideration for the small Caribbean economies is formally on the agenda. To date, though, there has been little discussion of the issue.

While the Miami meeting concentrated on trade issues, discussions ranged from a Caribbean request to be included in the U.S. initiative on the HIV/AIDS crisis that is being offered to sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti and Guyana to the topic of American deportations of dangerous criminals back to the Caribbean. (Caribbean countries say they have been hard pressed to handle the felons, some of whom have tenuous ties to the region.)

Former Assistant Secretary of State Peter Romero said the talks outlined ”a lot of complex issues” in the relationship between the Caribbean region and the United States.

”The U.S. . . . tends to do things that have a humongous impact on the Caribbean,” he said, citing new port-security regulations, the labeling of food imports and transnational crime, which often burdens cash-strapped Caribbean law enforcement efforts.