Talks Between US, Andean Countries in Final Stretch
BOGOTA, Sep 21 (IPS) - Trade negotiators and officials in Colombia, where the 12th round of negotiations of a free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia, Peru and Ecuador is taking place Monday through Friday, say the talks are moving ahead smoothly.
"We are reaching the beginning of the end of this intense negotiating process" that began a year and a half ago, Colombian Trade Minister Jorge Humberto Botero told reporters at the start of what is supposed to be the second to last round of talks.
"We are making an effort for the negotiations to hopefully be completed by late October," said Colombia’s chief negotiator, Hernando José Gómez.
More than 1,100 people are attending the talks in the Caribbean resort town of Cartagena including negotiators, representatives of the private sector, legislators and journalists from the participating countries. Security is being provided by 1,500 agents.
The legislators taking part in the talks included 155 from Colombia, 14 from Peru, six from Ecuador, and five from Bolivia (which is participating as an observer).
The issues being discussed this week are rules of origin, market access, institutional questions, cross-border services, intellectual property, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, textiles, financial services and dispute settlement.
Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, three of the five members of the Andean Community trade bloc, have been coordinating their negotiating positions.
Bolivia, meanwhile, has remained an observer, and Venezuela is not taking part in the process.
The discussions on agriculture have made the least progress, with agreement in only 30 percent of the questions, compared to an average of 80 to 85 percent in other negotiating areas, said Botero.
"The last 15 to 20 percent is the hardest part, that’s where the touchiest issues lie - all of the complex questions where tough political decisions have to be made," said Gómez.
The three Andean countries plan to continue discussing, in bilateral talks, agricultural accords that would be complementary to the U.S.-Andean free trade agreement.
The main obstacles to the free trade deal are U.S. sanitary regulations and the huge subsidies shelled out to U.S. agricultural producers, which Latin American farmers see as a trade barrier.
According to Colombia’s chief negotiator, the three Andean countries have maintained a unity in the negotiations "that totally exceeded my expectations."
"The truth is that at the beginning there were many doubts, because the Andean Community is going through a rough spot," said Gómez.
Bolivia and Ecuador experienced severe crises this year, with massive protests that toppled their presidents, while the leftist government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the right-wing administration of Alvaro Uribe in Colombia are like oil and water.
"Despite that, after 12 rounds, we have reached important agreements in every area," added Gómez.
Colombia, Peru and Ecuador have mutually supported each other in questions that are not even of shared interest, and the coordination between the three countries’ negotiators has been key to "sitting down at the negotiating table with a single voice," he said.
In Gómez’s view, "if we are able to negotiate the great majority of the issues together, that will reflect positively on the Andean Community."
The head of the Colombian delegation said the Andean negotiators have focused on ensuring that "the entire structure and legal scaffolding of the free trade agreement does not undermine or contradict Andean Community norms."
"We have come up with formulas under which aspects that are regulated by the Andean Community will continue to be resolved under the bloc’s dispute settlement system, while anything that does not have to do with the Andean bloc will be dealt with under the free trade agreement," he said.
The Andean Community’s rules take precedence over the national laws of the bloc’s member countries.
Minister Botero noted that "by a unanimous decision reached by the members, the Andean Commission - the bloc’s executive arm - authorised the negotiations with the United States. In other words, the process that we are involved in is the result of a decision in which all of the countries participated, including Venezuela."
"We are respectful of maintaining our ties with the Andean countries, while rigorously respecting the Andean norms," he remarked.
The three countries involved in the talks with the United States also assumed "the commitment to keep all of our Andean partners informed of the progress made in the negotiations," he said.
In addition, "we are willing to incorporate in our proposals the interests of the Andean countries that are not participating in the negotiations, if they ask us to do so," but "so far we have not received any request of this type" from Venezuela, he added.
Venezuela is Colombia’s second-biggest trading partner, and the two countries, along with Mexico, make up the Group of Three, a trade pact.
Major diplomatic rows between the two nations, which share a 2,219-km border that is affected by Colombia’s armed conflict as well as weapons and drug smuggling, have underscored the extent of the trade dependence between the two countries, especially Colombia’s reliance on Venezuela.
Colombia imports raw materials from Venezuela’s petrochemical and steel industries, and its local border economies are totally dependent on the neighbouring country.
Meanwhile, Venezuela buys 70 percent of its food imports from Colombia, as well as manufactured goods that it does not produce.
As for Bolivia, social unrest and internal clashes between different interest groups and sectors have kept the country out of the negotiations.
But opposition to the free trade agreement is also making itself felt in the participating countries, especially among farmers and in the pharmaceutical industry.
A statement titled "The free trade agreement sacrifices national interests" will be officially released Thursday by lawmakers from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
The declaration, which was leaked, complains about "the intransigence of the United States in questions that are extremely sensitive for the economies of our nations and the failure by the Andean governmental negotiators to take a firm stance."
The legislators say the free trade agreement will compromise the future development of their countries, "especially affecting the poorest, while seriously limiting the ability of our States to adequately play the role of regulator and redistributor, in order to contribute to eliminating the existing gaps created by inequality and injustice."
Trade agreements must be negotiated "on an equal footing," take into account the asymmetries between the participating countries, and implement "adequate compensation mechanisms," and they "should not impede the protection and development of the respective domestic markets," say the lawmakers.
The legislators - 23 of whom are from Bolivia, 15 from Ecuador, 14 from Colombia and one from Peru - say the free trade agreement, more than a mere trade deal, implies the acceptance of a long-term model of development that will have an influence on regional security and stability, environmental sustainability, and regional integration processes, "under the argument that a few of our products will have access to the U.S. market."
But imports of subsidised U.S. farm products "will ruin important industrial and agricultural sectors, drive wages down and undermine the rights of workers, and drive up the taxes paid by the poor."
The free trade agreement will also hurt development, public health and food security in the Andean countries, the legislators argue.
The World Health Organisation warned Monday in Cartagena that as a result of the accord, the price of medicines could rise 200 percent in the participating Andean nations, through the tightening of intellectual property rules.
A similar effect will be seen in agrochemical products, say the lawmakers in their statement.