Trade agreement nears completion

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

MIAMI Trade negotiators approved a draft Wednesday of the world's largest free trade region, adopting a version that allows countries to opt out of some requirements, officials from the Brazilian delegation said.

The draft will now be given to trade ministers from the 34 countries in the Americas, excluding Cuba. The ministers will begin two days of negotiations Thurs-day aimed at finalizing the text. The draft speaks in generalities and does not specify which parts countries could opt out of.

Canada, Chile, Mexico and several Caribbean countries had pushed for a more specific text for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, circulating a compromise proposal that would have skirted the thorny issue of agricultural subsidies.

In a statement released Wed-nesday, the Chilean government criticized the draft, saying it ''will reduce the FTAA to a minimum.''

But Regis Arslanian, a lead Brazilian negotiator, said Tues-day that his delegation succeeded in its desire to keep the original draft intact.

The aid group Oxfam Inter-national applauded the decision on the draft.

''The approval of the opt-in, opt-out version of the FTAA clearly is demonstrative of the new assertiveness of developing countries in trade negotiations,'' Oxfam spokesperson Mark Fried said. ''Brazil stood firm and showed that you can win by not buckling under the pressure of the United States.''

Talks on Tuesday had slowed to a crawl, and the United States spent most of the day announcing that it planned to seek separate free trade agreements with five countries: Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. There was no public opposition to the U.S. plans within the FTAA, but Oxfam criticized the move as a way to strong-arm small countries.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the U.S. announcement didn't undermine the Miami talks.

''Some countries are willing to move more quickly, and for those who are willing to move more quickly, we want to try to achieve that end,'' Zoellick said.

The announcement was the latest step in U.S. attempts to integrate the region economically. Within the Americas, the United States has free trade agreements with Canada, Mexico and Chile, and it is in the process of negotiating similar pacts with Central American nations and the Dominican Republic.

The FTAA proposal also is drawing criticism from anti-globalization activists, a mix of environmentalists and union activists. An estimated 20,000 or more protesters are expected to turn up for a march today.

AP Business Writer John Pain contributed to this report.

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