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Western Hemisphere Negotiators Approve Draft Trade Agreement - 2003-11-20

Trade negotiators in Miami, Florida have approved a draft agreement for final negotiations aimed at creating a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas by the end of next year. The draft agreement is being criticized for not going far enough to allow free trade to flourish.

After three days of tense and secretive talks, deputy trade ministers from 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere unveiled a draft agreement to be presented to trade ministers as the basis for negotiating the much anticipated Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Trade ministers from every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba will debate the agreement Thursday and Friday and they are expected to issue a final declaration on the creation of the so-called FTAA, by the time the Miami meeting ends late Friday.

The draft agreement puts forth a minimal set of rights and obligations for each country to follow. It will allow countries to sign or not sign different parts of the agreement, in areas ranging from agriculture, investment protection and intellectual property rights.

The draft agreement presented on Wednesday is the result of compromise between the United States and Brazil who have serious trade differences. Brazilian officials have objected to price supports for U-S agricultural crops such as citrus and sugar, and the U.S. position that agricultural trade issues be mediated by the World Trade Organization. U.S. officials want to see Brazil reform its intellectual property laws and other areas of its judicial system related to investor protection.

Speaking at a meeting of hemispheric business leaders following the release of the draft agreement, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick defended the compromise from criticism that it is "free trade lite" [does not go far enough].

"We are trying to make it happen," he said. "And to make it happen in trade you have to have a win-win formula for all parties. What I think many of us have tried to focus on is I think a comprehensive agreement. So, I do know how people describe that as "lite", if you are trying to cover a broad range of categories. Frankly a number of issues that we are trying to address here would be in much deeper integration than you would achieve in say the global negotiations."

When the Free Trade Area of the Americas was first proposed at the Summit of the Americas in 1994, it was designed as a means to integrate the hemisphere along the lines of the European Union. Eliminating tariffs and trade restrictions and streamlining trade law on a hemispheric-wide basis. Now, trade negotiators in Miami say the draft agreement presented on Wednesday is probably the furthest free trade will go in the Western Hemisphere at least for the time being.

Business leaders at the meeting like Frank Vargo of the National Association of Manufacturers say they would like to see more. "We definitely do want an FTAA "lite" and we do not see that has to be the outcome from what we see the ministers are talking about. We still want a very ambitious and comprehensive outcome and we still think that is possible," he said.

Meanwhile thousands of protesters, including labor union members, environmentalists and anti-globalization activists say they will march on downtown Miami Thursday to voice their opposition to any Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Police have sealed off much of the city and brought in hundreds of reinforcements to deal with any possible violence that may take place.