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    WTO Negotiations Off to Slow Start

    Organizers of the World meeting in Hong Kong say negotiations are off to a slow start, with delegates of the 149 economies very far apart on key issues.

    Day two of the negotiations saw participants hardening their positions. In one key area, African cotton-exporting nations demanded an immediate commitment from rich nations to end cotton subsidies, while developed countries remained firm on their offers to end them gradually.

    WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell tried to sound upbeat, but warned time may run out on these talks.

    "It is a normal tendency to engage in brinksmanship at a meeting like this," he said. "Clearly, though, in the last 10 years or so, it has become clear that as more and more countries become more and more engaged in the process, the notion of waiting until the last minute becomes more and more treacherous."

    The six-day talks aim to make progress in implementing the Doha Development Agenda, a plan to lift millions out of poverty through freer trade.

    U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman on Wednesday said the WTO should set a new deadline to keep the pressure on.

    Protests by anti-globalization groups continued, but were mostly peaceful.

    Activist groups that want to ensure any new trade deal is fair to poor countries, made their point by gathering at the conference venue and singing "No to GATS, our world is not for sale," to the tune of a popular Christmas song.

    GATS stands for the General Agreement on Trade in Services, an initiative to allow nations to more freely export services such as insurance and banking. This is one area where poorer nations say they are least able to compete.

    Agriculture and industrial market access are among the thorniest issue in these negotiations. Many of the poorest nations are reluctant to open their markets to goods from rich countries, which they fear would hurt their farmers, leaving them with no other viable industries.

    "Quota free, duty free, market access, that is very good. Very important. But when you get duty free [and] quota free and you have nothing to offer, does that help you? You have market access, but you have nothing to offer, nothing to produce! Does it really help you," asked Samuel Amehou, Benin's ambassador.

    Mario Matus, Chile's permanent representative to the World Trade Organization, says developing nations such as his want balanced competition.

    "What we want are clear and precise rules that allow us to compete on a level playing field and not compete against the subsidies of the nations with great economies, who are the ones who have money to subsidize," he said. "We don't have the money to subsidize."

    The United States and proponents of free trade say trade is the only way to lift developing countries out of poverty.

    Mr. Matus speaks from experience in Chile, which has raised its standard of living by liberalizing trade.

    "Always, the beneficiaries are the consumers and, foremost, the poor because they are the ones who produce more and cheaper products when there is true and open competition," he noted.

    Convincing poorer nations of that is a tough job, and while no one expects a thorough agreement to emerge from these six days of negotiations, organizers hope the momentum to keep the talks going will continue at least through Sunday - the day this meeting ends.

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