In our View for Friday — November 11, 2005

• Summit of the Americas

Summit of the Americas

Financial Times, London, Tuesday, Nov.

The Summit of the Americas is supposed to reinforce the hemisphere’s commitments to democracy and open markets. It is an opportunity for leaders from north and south to work out common ways of fostering development and prosperity. When the first summit was held 11 years ago, it took place amid hopes of economic convergence.

Sadly last weekend’s meeting in the Argentine seaside resort of Mar del Plata provided a stark contrast. It served only to highlight discord and disunity, leaving the U.S., Mexico, Central America, Colombia and Chile in one camp and Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela in the other. This division reflected new, more sober realities that must be taken into account in fashioning US policies in the region.

The contentious issue was the formation of a free trade zone stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego – the Free Trade Area of the Americas, originally launched in 1994. All but five of the 34 countries signed a clause in a declaration agreeing that talks on the matter should continue next year. But three of the biggest economies – Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela – refused to do so. The time spent on the negotiations and the acrimony of the exchanges meant there was little time to consider more important issues.

The sad thing about the division is that it could have been at least contained. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s radical president, arrived at the summit determined to “bury” an agreement he sees as characterizing the worst excesses of “neo-liberalism.” Yet U.S. negotiators pressed countries to accept a deadline for resuming talks on an accord that had been on the back-burner for at least two years.

Without any possibility of winning access to the U.S. market for their agricultural products, Brazil and Argentina in particular – the region’s most efficient farming nations – were understandably reluctant to sign up to precise deadlines. Moreover, President George W. Bush has repeatedly recognized that freer trade in agricultural products is itself dependent on the progress of the world trade talks that resume next month in Hong Kong.

The pattern of the U.S.’s own trade talks with the region also made it sensible to be more pragmatic about FTAA. For some time the emphasis in Washington has been on more realizable bilateral and sub-regional agreements, such as those negotiated most recently with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic.

By allowing trade to emerge as a contentious issue with Brazil and Argentina, the US has potentially damaged relations with two countries that it could work with to promote regional stability and contain any aggressive intentions harbored by Mr. Chávez. As U.S. policy-makers consider their options after the weekend’s summit, it would be better to start from a basis of what is practically achievable rather than pursue grand visions.


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