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US Senator: US-Uruguay free trade deal virtually sewn up

Dow Jones Newswires

US Senator: US-Uruguay Free Trade Deal Virtually Sewn Up

By Drew Benson

12 January 2006

BUENOS AIRES -(Dow Jones)- Visiting U.S. Sen. Melquiades "Mel" Martinez, R-Fla., said during an Argentine radio interview Thursday that a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Argentine neighbor Uruguay is virtually sewn up.

Interest in a U.S. free-trade deal gained prominence last week after Uruguayan Economy Minister Daniel Astori mentioned it, ruffling feathers within the continent’s biggest trade bloc, Mercosur, since Uruguay would have to dump Mercosur for a one-on-one trade deal.

"I was in Uruguay a few months ago, and I know they are very interested in concluding this treaty, which is a done deal," U.S. Sen. Martinez told Argentine Radio 10. "It still needs to be ratified in Uruguay, and ratified in the United States, but it is practically concluded," said the lawmaker, who sits on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The comments came a day after Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said that talk of a U.S.-Uruguay deal suggests that Mercosur’s larger partners need to improve commercial ties with the bloc’s smaller members. "When we see declarations of disagreement within Mercosur, they should be the object of reflection from larger partners in the bloc," Amorim said. "If Uruguay doesn’t see that Mercosur brings benefits, it’s because perhaps we haven’t done enough."

Amorim made the declarations in Brasilia after meeting with visiting Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, who expressed agreement with Amorim’s position.

Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay are full Mercosur members. Last month Mercosur leaders approved the eventual admission of Venezuela as a fifth full member. According to a clause approved in 2000, Mercosur member nations must work as a bloc when drawing up free trade agreements with nonmember countries.

Astori said last week in a magazine interview that the nation wants a U.S. free trade deal "as soon as possible," adding that he believes a U.S. deal is the best way for the left to create jobs at home. A day later, Uruguayan Foreign Minister Reinaldo Gargano, a rival of Astori’s within President Tabare Vazquez’s leftist coalition government, flatly denied such a goal.

Since then, Uruguayan Industry Minister Jorge Lepra and Tourism Minister Hector Lescano have expressed their support for Astori’s position.

Talk of a full free trade deal comes after Uruguayan and U.S. officials in November signed a revamped investment protection agreement between the two nations, an accord the Uruguayan legislature approved last month.