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Front Page » Top Stories » First Phase Of Hemispheric Trade Talks Winding Down

First Phase Of Hemispheric Trade Talks Winding Down

Written by on January 11, 2001

By Paola Iuspa
The temporary headquarters for negotiations that could lead to the biggest free-trade agreement in the world will leave Miami in less than two months.

The secretariat for the Free Trade Area of the Americas moves to Panama City until 2003 after two years of operating out of an office-equipped guest room in the Hotel Inter-Continental Miami.

After Panama, the talks are to go to Mexico City until February 2005, the deadline now in place for the 34 participating countries in the Western Hemisphere to reach an agreement.

Backers of the pact seek to change government regulations to open markets to foreign competition in an effort to expand trade of all products among countries in Latin America, the US and Canada.

Once an agreement is reached, officials from participating nations will be seeking a permanent home for the secretariat. Many see the host municipality as a Western Brussels, the city that serves as the center of the European Union, or a Geneva, capital of the World Trade Organization, said Tony Villamil, co-chair of the Free Trade Area of the Americas committee for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

The secretariat, he said, "would set up commercial disputes among FTAA members and oversee the implementation of the agreement from Canada to Patagonia," said Mr. Villamil, who is also chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for Gov. Jeb Bush — a volunteer post. "The temporary location is where the negotiations for the agreement take place and where ministries from the 34 countries meet often to negotiate terms in the many industry sectors" the agreement will embrace.

Mr. Villamil, who was the nation’s under-secretary of commerce when George Bush was president, was a member of a committee that initiated efforts to hold the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami, where the concept of the free-trade-area accord was born.

At the summit, officials from 34 countries agreed on a plan of action to create a treaty that would encompass more than 780 million consumers throughout the Western Hemisphere with a combined gross domestic product of $14 trillion, according to documents from the Florida Department of State’s Office of International Affairs.

Jerry Haar, senior research associate at the University of Miami North-South Center, said having played host to the secretariat for two years shows Miami is capable of serving as the permanent home of the Free Trade Area of the Americas headquarters.

The temporary secretariat, he said, "was largely symbolic. But it validated the fact that indeed Miami is the gateway of the Americas. We have the physical and financial infrastructure and the human capital that it takes."

To keep the temporary secretariat operating until February cost $4.5 million, with some of it coming from donations from local businesses, said Hugh Simon, Florida’s under secretary of state for international affairs, whose office is in Coral Gables.

Mr. Simon said by the time the temporary headquarters departs, it will have cost federal and state agencies and local businesses $4.5 million.

He said $3.3 million "came from the tripartite committee consisting of the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization of American States and the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean."

"About $650,000," Mr. Simon said, "came from the State of Florida, $250,000 from the county and $250,000 from combined efforts from the 1997 FTAA Florida Inc. and the 1999 Team Florida FTAA."

FTAA Florida Inc. was formed by a group of businesspersons who started promoting the accord. Team Florida FTAA is a nonprofit group coordinating private-sector support efforts.

Mr. Simon said many local businesses also donated computers, furniture, phone and faxes to dress the office.

Once the secretariat moves to Panama, Florida’s next step will be to lobby to make Miami the permanent home for the secretariat, an effort that the US House of Representatives supported with an April resolution.

Experts said playing host to the FTAA would enhance Miami’s image as a center for trade and finance for the Americas and could lead federal agencies and multinational corporations to open branch offices around an FTAA headquarters.

"Major corporations around the world may want to open offices here," Mr. Villamil said, "because if they have any dispute, they may want to be able to walk into the offices to try to resolve any differences."

To land the secretariat, Miami business leaders would have to prepare a proposal, make all kinds of promises and emphasize Miami’s pluses.

"If we build a building for the secretariat it has to be seen," Mr. Villamil said. "But one thing is clear. The financing will have to come primarily from the private sector, which will benefit from the agreement."

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