Ecuadorean team eyes trade deal with US this week
Mon 27 Mar 2006
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, March 27 (Reuters) - Ecuador could reach a free trade deal with the United States by the end of this week if the two sides can resolve difficult agricultural issues, Ecuadorean negotiators said on Monday.
"I’m optimistic that we’re going to end up having a quite balanced agreement, which is absolutely what we’re looking for," Ecuadorean Trade Minister Jorge Illingworth told Reuters after a meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.
Illingworth said there was "a nice feeling" to his talks with Portman and he hoped this would be the last round of negotiations between the two countries.
Colombia, Peru and Ecuador began free trade talks with the United States in May 2004. Peru reached a deal in December and Colombia followed in late February, putting pressure on Ecuador to close.
All three countries and Bolivia have duty-free access to the U.S. market for most of their exports. However, that U.S. program expires at the end of the year and there is almost no expectation it will be renewed.
"We have been told from day one of this negotiation that is a very slim possibility," Illingworth said.
Illingworth said he and Portman discussed how to handle market openings for sensitive products like rice and corn for Ecuador and tuna and sugar for the United States.
Thousands of Indian peasants blockaded roads in Ecuador last weak with piles of rubble and burning tires to pressure the government to abandon the trade talks. The protesters, many of whom are potato or corn farmers, fear they will not be able to compete with U.S. products.
Indian leaders are expected to decide on Friday whether to resume the protests.
Manuel Chiriboga, Ecuador’s chief negotiator in the talks, said milk powder and cattle "offal," or organs, were also sensitive products for Ecuador. He agreed a deal was possible this week "if we put in a lot of work and we find the flexibility we are looking for in the most sensitive areas."
The Bush administration is expected to sign the agreement with Peru in early April, setting the stage for Congress to vote on the pact before its August recess.
The timetable for the Colombian agreement is a little less clear. The next step is for the Bush administration to give Congress 90 days notice of its intention to sign the pact.
Illingworth said Ecuador wanted to finish talks this week so its agreement could go through Congress with Colombia’s. "But that depends if, by the end of the week, we have the balanced agreement we want," he said.
(additional reporting by Alonso Soto in Quito)