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U.S.-Centam trade talks finish work in some areas

(Monday, Aug. 4, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Reuters, 08/01/03: WASHINGTON - U.S. and Central American trade negotiators said on Friday they essentially have finished work on two sections of a proposed free trade agreement, but difficult talks lie ahead.

"We feel very good about the outcome of this round," chief U.S. negotiator Regina Vargo said at a press conference in New Orleans, monitored by telephone. The two sides finished negotiations on customs and electronic commerce issues except for a final review, she said.

The proposed U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) would phase out tariffs and boost investment ties between the United States and five Central American countries -- Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

New Orleans hosted the sixth round of negotiations, which both sides still hope to finish by year end. Mayor Ray Nagin said his city would establish a CAFTA training institute to help "prepare for the changes we know CAFTA will bring."

Many Central American farmers fear the proposed agreement will drive them out of business as agricultural tariffs are phased out. U.S. sugar farmers and textile producers also are worried about increased competition under the pact.

The two sides discussed "customized solutions" for dealing with sensitive goods during this week's talk, but did not formally exchange new market access offers, Vargo said.

The discussions will be more concrete at the next round of negotiations in Managua, Nicaragua, she said.

The latest round came as the Bush administration won congressional approval of new free trade agreements with Chile and Singapore by large bipartisan votes.

A number of Democrats who voted for those pacts have warned they would not support CAFTA unless it contains stronger labor and environmental provisions.

Vargo said the administration would consult "very closely" with Congress, but plans to model CAFTA labor and environmental provisions on the Chile and Singapore pacts.