U.S. officials at the hemispheric free trade talks in Miami unveiled a series of new trade initiatives Tuesday, proposing bilateral trade accords with several countries in Latin America. Officials say the bilateral accords will not undermine the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas which is supposed to take effect at the end of next year.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick says the United States will seek free trade agreements with Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia as part of a strategy to speed up free trade talks in the hemisphere. The U.S. will begin talks with Peru and Colombia and then follow up with their Andean neighbors, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Late Tuesday, Mr. Zoellick also announced the U.S. will seek a free trade pact with Panama.
Mr. Zoellick says the bilateral talks with Andean countries and Panama are not meant to undermine any eventual agreement to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas, but are simply a recognition that some countries are more ready than others in the region to move towards free trade.
"Now, you might say why the two tracks? First off, some countries are willing to move more quickly and we want to try and achieve that end. In addition, the types of free trade agreements we have done, either NAFTA, or with Chile, or we hope with Central America or with these countries [Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia] also seek to have a higher level of ambition," he said. "The level of obligation that all parties cover makes these state of the art trade agreements."
Mr. Zoellick also says a free trade pact between other central American nations besides Panama and the United States could be reached within months.
So far discussions at the Miami talks have focused on disagreements between the United States and Brazil. Brazilian officials have objected to price supports for U.S. agricultural crops such as sugar and citrus, and the U.S. position that agricultural trade issues be decided by the World Trade Organization. U.S. officials say they want to see Brazil reform its intellectual property laws.
A reported compromise between the two countries to agree to follow a general set of free trade guidelines but opt out of specific trade rules they deem unfavorable, has angered other countries at the talks, who say if the proposal is approved any future Free Trade Area of the Americas would be ineffective.
The tense atmosphere inside the talks can be felt outside the conference hall where hundreds of police have erected high barricades blocking most streets in downtown Miami. Demonstrations by labor unions, environmentalists and anti-globalization activists are scheduled to start on Wednesday and police say the heavy security presence is to prevent any violence of the sort that has disrupted other trade talks over the past few years.