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Political Instability, Corruption Could Undermine Economic Prospects in Americas, says US Official - 2003-10-29

A senior U.S. diplomat says political instability arising from economic tensions could get worse in Latin America and the Caribbean. The official also warns that moves toward a Free Trade Area of the Americas could be hurt if corruption is not curbed in the region.

Roger Noriega, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs told a business leaders conference in Miami that instability of the sort recently seen in Bolivia could spread to other countries in the region.

Earlier this month, Bolivia's president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was forced from office and into exile after massive protests in his country. The protests were led by a coalition of indigenous Indian rights groups, miners and farmers and were triggered by Mr. De Lozada's decision to export natural gas to the United States through a pipeline passing through Chile.

Mr. Noriega says the types of protests seen in Bolivia could spread to other countries in the region. "We must move boldly to prevent a wave of doubt and dissatisfaction from eroding the foundation of economic and political stability in other countries in the Americas," he said.

Mr. Noriega criticized the organizers of the protests in Bolivia, saying they used fear tactics to discredit a legitimate government.

However, he also said governments in the region must do more to eliminate corruption and mis-management, which he says could not only undermine their governments, but also put at risk any economic benefits that could come from the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

"Absent the rule of law, corruption, sweetheart deals and arbitrary policies will choke off economic growth and undermine confidence in the marketplace, which is a setback for the wealthy but a disaster for the poor," said Mr. Noriega.

Mr. Noriega's comments come as officials in Miami are preparing to welcome finance ministers from 34 countries in the region to the next round of trade talks designed to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005.

Anti-Globalization protesters have threatened to disrupt the talks which take place at the end of November. Doubts have also been raised recently about whether the trade talks will succeed, following the collapse of world trade talks in Mexico in September, and growing tensions between the United States and Brazil over U.S. efforts to protect domestic citrus and sugar growers with high tariffs.