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Free trade framework gets approval in Miami

(Friday, Nov. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Traci Carl, AP:

MIAMI - Pushing for a victory after failed world trade talks in Mexico, officials from across the Americas agreed to move forward on a watered-down outline for the world's largest free trade bloc.

Trade ministers from 34 countries in the Americas, excluding only Cuba, were originally scheduled to finish their negotiations on the Free Trade Area of the Americas on Friday. But after days of debate, they said Thursday they had achieved all they could in Miami.

The agreement, which the nations hope to formalize by January 2005, will likely change what food consumers buy in supermarkets as well as help dictate the future jobs of the hemisphere's workers. The declaration will be turned over to negotiators to solidify the details.

Ministers hailed their final declaration as a victory, with both the United States and Brazil - which have been locked in a trade feud - saying it showed there had been progress in bringing countries together since World Trade Organization talks collapsed two months ago in Cancun, Mexico.

The cheery outlook was a sharp contrast from even a few weeks ago, when ministers had publicly battled over how to reduce agricultural subsidies and protect patents.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said ministers had "learned some lessons" since Cancun, and had moved the "FTAA into a new phase, from general concepts and people talking past each other to positive realities."

During the September WTO talks, Brazil led a group of more than 20 nations who insisted that the United States and Europe eliminate agriculture subsidies. Since the talks fell apart, the WTO's 146 members have made little progress in breaking the deadlock.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said Thursday's declaration was a good sign that there may be future movement within the WTO, and he agreed that countries were no longer "dancing to the beat of their own drummer, trying to explain his or her position."

During the FTAA talks, the Bush administration insisted on keeping negotiations on U.S. subsidies to American farmers at the global level through the WTO and not have them part of the FTAA. Brazil has done the same with discussions on investment and intellectual-property rights.

The FTAA declaration, hammered out by deputy ministers on Wednesday, calls for a core agreement that all countries would sign, but allows each nation to decide its commitment to the more controversial topics.

The international aid organization Oxfam criticized Thursday's final draft as "blind to the needs of the poor."

"The final declaration simply papers over the irreconcilable difference between narrow self-interest on the one hand, and the urgent need to reduce poverty on the other," spokesman Phil Bloomer said.

Police clashed with anti-FTAA demonstrators a few blocks from the hotel where the trade meetings were being held, firing rubber bullets and using plastic shields, concussion grenades and stun guns to push back the crowd.

About 140 demonstrators were arrested, and 20 people were taken to the hospital for treatment, including three police officers.

The clashes came before and after a peaceful march organized by U.S. labor unions. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 marchers took part, arguing that the FTAA would take thousands of jobs to other countries, reduce workers' rights by exploiting cheap labor and drain natural resources.

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