Central America sets conditions for multilateral talks

by Maricel Sequeira

San Jose, 29 Aug 2001 (IPS) -- Central America is willing to consider the proposal to launch a new round of multilateral trade talks, but only if the region’s concerns are taken into account, political and business leaders from Central America told World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director- General Mike Moore this week.

Moore visited Guatemala Monday and Costa Rica Tuesday, as part of his efforts to drum up support among the 142 WTO member countries for the launch of a new round of talks at the ministerial meeting on 9-13 November in Doha, Qatar.

The WTO believes that in a world carved up into trade blocs, poor isolated nations face the greatest risks, said Moore, who was in Colombia Wednesday before heading to Mexico Friday.

Few rich nations seek trade agreements with poor countries, which puts the latter at a disadvantage, given the difficulties of making one’s way in a world of superimposed and at times, contradictory trade rules, he said, while stressing the importance of a new round of talks for the developing South.

Moore warned that failure in Qatar would cast into doubt the WTO’s usefulness as a forum for trade negotiations.

The WTO’s third ministerial conference, held two years ago in the US city of Seattle in the midst of massive protest demonstrations by groups opposed to economic globalization, ended without an agreement on a new round of talks.

But Moore’s visit this week did not seem to have had any influence on the already firm positions of the countries represented in the conversations he held in Central America, said analysts.

Political and business leaders from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic, who met with Moore Monday, conditioned their support for a new round of talks on solutions to problems involving the implementation of the accords that arose out of the 1986-94 Uruguay Round, which predated the WTO.

Costa Rica, on the other hand, confirmed its support for a new, broad round of talks.

Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic are demanding the elimination or reduction of farm subsidies in the industrialised North and special treatment for small economies.

They also want an indefinite extension of the preferential treatment their imports receive in developed nations, said Alfredo Millian, with the Central American and Caribbean Council on Textiles and Apparel Manufacturing.

Those incentives are due to expire in 2003, although Honduras and Nicaragua will continue to benefit from them up to 2005, because their per capita annual income stands below $1,000.

The business sectors of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic insist that the 2005 time-frame apply to all six countries, and that they be granted the possibility of an extension of the preferential treatment beyond that date.

Agriculture is another sensitive question for Central America and the Dominican Republic. Rigoberto Monge at the Office of Support for the Private Sector in El Salvador said it was essential for rich countries to eliminate import quotas, high import duties, non-tariff barriers and farm subsidies.

But in Costa Rica Tuesday, Moore heard a different story. The Costa Rican government backs the start of a new round of talks, although it wants them to be as broad as possible. In other words, it is calling for negotiations on all pending trade issues, not only those of interest to the countries of the North.

In Costa Rica’s view, the new multilateral negotiations must cover key questions like agriculture, dispute settlement procedures and an accord on rules governing investment.

The incorporation of those questions in the agenda of the next round of talks would pave the way for greater insertion by Costa Rica into the global economy and, as a consequence, for greater economic growth and human development for the country, according to minister of Foreign Trade Tomas Duenas.

“A new round must fulfill the fundamental objective of strengthening the multilateral trade system and its role as a guarantor of the rights of all of its members, particularly the smallest ones,” said Duenas.

Costa Rica wants “balanced negotiations that cover [a] broad ground,” he stressed.

In Central America, Moore ran into two of the three positions predominant among WTO members with respect to the start of a new round of talks.

The stance taken by the Dominican Republic and most Central American countries coincides with the arguments of a strong group of developing countries headed by India, Egypt and Pakistan.

That bloc says the South cannot commit itself to further trade liberalisation as long as the imbalances resulting from the Uruguay Round persist.

The group is also opposed to discussing new issues in order for a handful of countries to obtain benefits and reciprocal concessions, without any advantages accruing to the developing world.

Costa Rica, on the other hand, echoes the arguments set forth by South Africa.  South African minister of Trade and Industry, Alec Erwin, said earlier this month that the developing world would disappear from the global scene if it failed to take on a central role in the WTO’s fourth ministerial conference in Qatar.

Costa Rica also believes that it is precisely within the WTO, in a new round of talks addressing all of the key issues, that the imbalances - mainly related to agriculture and questions like intellectual property and patents, in which the North has benefited - can be corrected.

The vice-president of the Costa Rican Chamber of Exporters, Marcela Filloy, warned in the weekly publication El Financiero that the Qatar gathering would present yet another challenge.

For her, that challenge consists of incorporating in the talks the questions of the “humanisation and democratisation” of international trade, to make it possible for developing countries to renegotiate time-frames in order to adjust their economies and comply with the Uruguay Round accords.

Democratisation is also indispensable for the South to assert its rights within the WTO and participate in the drafting of rules, given that the main decisions today depend on the US and the European Union, Filloy added. – SUNS4958

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