MIAMI — Trade negotiators approved a draft text Wednesday outlining the world’s largest free-trade region, adopting a buffet-style version that allows countries to opt out of the more controversial clauses of the agreement.
The draft, pushed by Brazil and the United States, will be handed over to trade ministers from the 34 nations in the Americas, excluding Cuba. The ministers will start two days of meetings today to finish the text, which speaks in generalities and does not specify which parts of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement countries could opt out of.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick denied that the United States was backing away from creating an agreement that would tear down all trade barriers from Alaska to Argentina, which was how the FTAA was originally conceived. He called the buffet comparison inaccurate.
“I look at it as a full-course dinner, but each country has to decide how much to eat with each course,” he told business leaders.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said the draft recognizes that the 34 countries have many different interests in trade and may want to negotiate distinct topics.
“It’s a victory for everybody,” he told reporters.
Canada, Chile, Mexico and several Caribbean countries had pushed for a more specific FTAA text. Chilean officials criticized the draft, saying it will reduce the FTAA to a “minimum.”
The United States and Brazil pushed to exclude certain sensitive areas from the FTAA agreement even before this week’s talks began.
The Bush administration has tried to keep negotiations on cutting U.S. subsidies to American farmers at the global level through the World Trade Organization and not have them part of the FTAA. Brazil has done the same with discussions on investment and intellectual-property rights.
Amorim said that trying to push the United States to drop farm subsidies was like “believing in fairy tales.”
The largest U.S. manufacturing industry group said the draft will likely only be a temporary setback from the goal of making a comprehensive free-trade area, noting it could be changed by top-level officials.
“This is not yet baked in the cake,” said Frank Vargo of the National Association of Manufacturers.
The aid group Oxfam International called the draft a major achievement for poorer countries.
“The approval of the opt-in, opt-out version of the FTAA clearly is demonstrative of the new assertiveness of developing countries in trade negotiations,” Oxfam spokesman Mark Fried said.
The FTAA proposal is drawing criticism from anti-globalization activists, a mix of environmentalists and union activists. More than 10,000 FTAA opponents are expected to march through Miami’s streets Thursday.
Seven anti-globalization activists were arrested Wednesday and charged with burglary for using a Miami mansion to prepare for demonstrations, police said. Officers said they seized metal chains, gas masks, crowbars and slingshots.