WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration hopes pending trade deals with Colombia and Panama will help it realize its longtime dream of a free trade zone stretching from northern Alaska to the southern tip of Chile.
“We are close to having this unbroken chain of free markets in the hemisphere,” Deputy U.S. Trade Representative John Veroneau said on Tuesday in a speech to the American Association of Port Authorities.
But the proposed patchwork of bilateral and regional agreements stretching the length of the Americas would be only an echo of the now-faint goal of a single commerce zone under the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA.
The vision for the FTAA was to end trade and investment barriers for 34 countries in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
The effort, launched in the mid-1990s under President Bill Clinton, would have expanded the model of NAFTA, the 14-year-old North American trade deal that is drawing renewed attacks in the U.S. presidential race this year.
The FTAA once was a mainstay of U.S. trade policy, but negotiations drifted into inertia several years ago amid overwhelming resistance from several large Latin American economies including Brazil and Venezuela.
The Bush administration then turned to bilateral and regional agreements, also part of its trade agenda. It sealed bilateral deals with Chile and Peru and a regional pact with Central American countries and the Dominican Republic.
Veroneau said such agreements were helping Latin American economies grow and chipping away at the income equality that has plagued the region for generations.
Administration negotiators also have signed bilateral agreements with Colombia and Panama, but the administration may have a hard time winning approval for these deals in Congress.
Democrats, who control both chambers, have pledged to block them, along with another, much larger agreement with South Korea, until the administration meets a raft of demands.
Chief among some lawmakers’ concerns is Colombia’s track record of violence targeting unionists. Some members want more
proof the government of President Alvaro Uribe has done enough to improve the human rights situation there.
The administration asserts Uribe has made great strides.
Lawmakers also are asking for progress on a package of assistance programs to help workers in the United States bruised by international trade.
Some lawmakers demand that Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, wanted in the United States on charges he killed a U.S. soldier in 1992, step down from his post as head of Panama’s National Assembly.
Bush steps down in January 2009, but the administration has yet to submit either trade pact to Congress. It says it is working with lawmakers to ensure a smooth path when it does.
Veroneau insisted that the slumbering FTAA remains on the agenda. “It is still an aspiration of ours,” he said.
Editing by David Gregorio