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|Bid for South American free trade zone|
|04/08/01 at 23:32:56|
|Bid for South American free trade zone|
By Tom Silverman
08 April 2001
Putting weeks of civil unrest and political scandals behind him, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has savoured a weekend on the international stage.
He has played host to his Mexican and Colombian counterparts in an effort to revive a moribund trade bloc called the Group of Three.
The summit is just the sort the nationalist Chavez enjoys most: an opportunity for the three Latin American countries to strengthen ties to offset US dominance during the April 20–22 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.
Mexico's Vicente Fox and Colombia's Andres Pastrana arrived in Caracas to full military honors, cheering Venezuelans and characteristic bear hugs from a grinning Chavez.
The G–3 was created in 1995 with the goal of establishing a free trade zone among the three countries, with a combined population of 150 million.
Those efforts fizzled after Mexico and Venezuela suffered crises that threatened their banking sectors. Still, trade among the three nations rose by 50 per cent since 1995, reaching $3.2 billion last year.
For Chavez, the summit is a chance to trumpet his vision of a unified Latin America – an objective he says is based on the dashed dreams of 18th–century South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Borrowing one of Bolivar's most famous quotes during the G–3 inaugural ceremony, Chavez said: "I wish more than anyone else to see the greatest nation in the world formed in Latin America, less for its size and riches than for its liberty and freedom."
The leftist firebrand wants to recruit Mexico and Colombia behind his campaign to strengthen Latin American trade blocs before creating the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, or FTAA, which would create a single dlrs 1.3 trillion market from Alaska to Argentina.
On Saturday, negotiators from the 34 countries meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, said they have agreed to a timetable for completing a FTAA in January 2005 and launching it by December of that year.
Chavez, who in recent weeks faced an onslaught of bitter labor strikes and protests from oil workers, teachers, university students and frontier cattlemen, argues that poor Latin American countries are not ready to open their struggling agricultural and textile industries to North American competition.
He's not alone. On Friday night, a few dozen people in Buenos Aires marched in protest against free trade during a three–day gathering by officials from 34 countries discussing the FTAA.
"Any project of integration that only pretends to turn us into a great super market trapped in a circle of perverse economic theories, that doesn't place human beings above anything else, would be a project for a minority," Chavez said.
Last week, Chavez won Brazil's support behind his cause, and the United States backed off its push to complete FTAA negotiations by 2003, two years before the original deadline.
A former paratrooper who led a failed coup in 1992, Chavez contrasts sharply with his more market–friendly and conservative Mexican and Colombian counterparts.
Mexico has become one of the world's most enthusiastic signers of trade pacts since creating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and the United States in 1994. Among its 31 free trade treaties is a February deal with the European Union.
While Venezuela has mentioned the possibility of postponing the FTAA, Colombia is eager to wrap up negotiations as soon as possible.
"Our goal is to get started on negotiations so that ... in 2005 the (FTAA) agreement will enter into effect," Pastrana said after arriving in Caracas.
Colombia is wary of Venezuela's unilateral bid to join Mercosur, a trade bloc that now includes Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and associate members Chile and Bolivia. Colombia would prefer that the Community of Andean Nations – Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia – join Mercosur as a bloc.
For Fox, the summit is a chance to introduce Mexico, Latin America's second largest economy, as a regional "big brother." Fox wants to use the Mexico's membership in NAFTA to position the country as a bridge for Latin American nations seeking investment opportunities in the United States.
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