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Free trade between US and neighbors is alive and well

Miami Herald


Free trade between U.S. and neighbors is alive and well

By Jorge L. Arrizurieta

13 April 2006

Critics of a free trade agreement in the Americas point to what they perceive are missed deadlines and lost opportunities as proof that a hemisphere-wide pact is dead and gone.

But such thinking ignores a fundamental reality: Free trade is, in fact, alive and well throughout the Americas, and the prospects remain strong that a Free Trade Area of the Americas in some fashion will still emerge.

Those who erroneously judged the process since the Summit of the Americas in 1994 as an all-or-nothing proposition for the FTAA missed the real story of how the process opened crucial trading partnerships that reached most of the hemisphere anyway and that common ground was forming for a reconstituted FTAA.

Florida’s experience is a prime example of how FTAA relationships have forged tremendous economic opportunities. In 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush, working with legislative, business and local government leaders, created a unique public-private partnership to spearhead the state’s campaign to attract to Florida the permanent secretariat of the FTAA.

Florida FTAA embarked on an aggressive strategy of building partnerships throughout the hemisphere and today no other candidate for the FTAA headquarters in the hemisphere has more endorsements from heads of state than Florida FTAA.

The effort has helped to position the state and more specifically Miami as the ’’Gateway of the Americas.’’ In the process, Florida is the No. 1 trading partner of every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, except for Mexico, and the Americas represent nearly 60 percent of Florida’s total international trade.

Hope for a reinvigorated FTAA emerged in November 2005 at the IV Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina. While Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was making headlines mocking the United States, more substantive work was taking place as 29 nations reaffirmed their commitment to the FTAA process.

Led by Mexico’s Vicente Fox, a movement emerged with the support of all but five leaders that recognized the importance of a community of open markets. Whether the number of 29 nations in a new effort stands pat will be determined by critical elections this year. Already, governments are changing hands.

But even if some Latin American nations elect left-leaning presidents, those leaders could still represent a new breed of pragmatism that embraces the economic benefits of trade, as is the case with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

An FTAA in spirit has been alive through trade agreements between the United States and Latin American nations that could form the stepping stones for a broader hemisphere-wide pact.

Already, trade agreements are in place between the United States and about two-thirds of the hemisphere, including Mexico, Chile and the nations under CAFTA-DR, with recent successful U.S. negotiations with Colombia and with Peru. Trade deals with Ecuador and Panama may also be ready soon and Uruguay officials have said they may negotiate with the United States, breaking with Mercosur nations.

Even if the naysayers are right and an FTAA never materializes, the ramifications of these free trade agreements will be monumental in the years ahead.

Overall, most nations in the Americas have made great strides in recognizing the importance of free trade as a weapon against poverty, and ultimately there is much more that unites us than divides us. As that reality takes shape, a renewed FTAA of the willing can move forward with a more realistic objective to focus on areas of agreement and work out differences as the trade partnership unfolds.

All the while, Miami will remain well positioned at the center of a renewed movement of free trade and economic vitality in the Americas.

Jorge L. Arrizurieta is president of Florida FTAA Inc.