US-Chile trade negotiators await House fast-track vote
By Paola Iuspa
Nine days of talks toward a free-trade accord with Chile ended Monday after what negotiators described as "significant progress" but with attention on a US House vote today (12/6) on a measure that could speed progress.
Regina Vargo, head of the US delegation, and Osvaldo Rosales, head of the Chilean delegation, said they hope to conduct a final round of trade talks in mid-January, which are set for Chile.
Until then, they said, negotiating groups would continue bargaining on issues such as market access, investment services, intellectual property rights, labor, environment, subsidies and anti-dumping.
Early this year, US and Chilean presidents agreed to the deal, which would reduce trade barriers between both nations, Ms. Vargo said. But negotiators said they are awaiting a US Congressional vote on trade-promotion authority, popularly known as fast-track.
That would grant the US president power to negotiate treaties and limits congressional power to either approve or reject a deal without making amendments. The president would have to consult with Congress along the way.
Proponents say fast-track gives countries the assurance that anything negotiated at the bargaining table would not be changed at the last minute.
Ms. Vargo would not confirm if negotiations would continue if Congress does not approve trade-promotion authority.
Before a Thanksgiving break, the House was 30 votes short of being able to pass a fast-track bill, according to a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce report. The report said lobbying efforts in support of the bill were expected to increase this week.
Ms. Vargo said negotiators want to "take advantage" and learn from deliberations in the US House before "coming up with final proposals" for the US-Chile accord.
She said it has been hard to reach a consensus in some areas of negotiation that have to do with such things as minimum wages, environmental issues and dispute settlement.
"There is a degree of comfort having Congress lay some guidelines for us," she said Tuesday at the University of Miami. The university's business school was host to the talks for second time in the year.
Saying he would not go into details, Mr. Rosales said negotiations advanced smoothly. He said he had observed a "noticeable flexibility and creativity" during the talks.
With 50% of its gross domestic product derived from trade, Chile has a positive approach to the one-year-old negotiations, Ms. Vargo said.
US exports to Chile were $3.5 billion in 2000 while imports to the US from the South American country totaled $3.2 billion. Because Chile has bilateral agreements with Mexico and Canada, its trade with the US has been in decline, Ms. Vargo said.
"Since Chile signed a deal with Canada," she said, "we lost a share in the past five years. We should have been selling $4.3 billion by now."
Mr. Rosales said his country is negotiating free-trade accords with the European Union and Korea. A deal with the European Union could be completed by March, he said.
If the US-Chile treaty materializes, US companies in Chile would have access to those markets, Mr. Rosales said.
Florida FTAA Inc., a nonprofit group chaired by Secretary of State Katherine Harris that promotes free trade, sponsored the nine-day event at a cost exceeding $100,000, said Ines Calderon, the group's executive director.