Friday, June 16, 2006
Bolivia Changes Mind on U.S. Trade Deal
By CARLOS VALDEZ
The Associated Press
LA PAZ, Bolivia — The government of President Evo Morales said Friday it hopes to negotiate a free trade agreement with the U.S., a policy turnaround apparently influenced by pressure from business groups.
"We’re ready to negotiate a trade agreement with the United States that benefits the productive sector," Celinda Sosa, minister of production and small business, told reporters.
A government commission is working on a proposal jointly with small, medium and large producers, Sosa added.
The comment is a sharp change from several of Morales’ comments since taking office in January. He has said Bolivia would "never" negotiate a free trade agreement with the U.S., whose government he recently accused of trying to assassinate him and which he often calls "the empire."
Instead, Morales signed an alternative trade pact based on socialist principles with his close allies Venezuela and Cuba in April.
Business groups harshly criticized the move saying it would not help boost Bolivia’s exports.
But Morales sometimes has been more ambiguous about expanded trade with the United States. During the 2005 presidential campaign he said he would consider trade pacts with any country, including the U.S.
On Thursday, he said he would leave debate on the issue to the constituent assembly that will rewrite Bolivia’s Constitution starting August 6.
"If Evo Morales negotiates a free trade agreement before and perhaps ... the constituent assembly takes another position, any negotiating will have been useless," Morales said.
The United States is Bolivia’s second-largest export market after Brazil, while Venezuela is in fifth place and Cuba ranks 88.
Alvaro Garcia Linera, Bolivia’s vice president, will travel to Washington in July to try to convince the U.S. Congress to extend the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which has offered zero tariffs for several Bolivian products exported to the U.S since 2002.
The act is set to expire at the end of 2006 and failure to extend it would put thousands of jobs at risk, many of them in the poor city of El Alto. Businesses in the city export jewelry, furniture and clothes to the United States.
Morales has strong support in El Alto, but it has been the center of massive anti-government street protests that have kicked out two presidents in the past three years.