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Several Latin American Countries Express Interest in Joining NAFTA

By Juanita Darling
Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY

Now that the North American Free Trade Agreement has passed a crucial test in the United States, Latin American nations are lining up to join a pact they believe brings closer to reality a free-trade zone for all of the hemisphere.

Indeed, U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., is expected this week to introduce legislation that would allow Chile to join NAFTA, which removes trade barriers among Mexico, the United States and Canada. Under NAFTA's so-called accession clause, other nations in the Western Hemisphere -- including the Caribbean -- may join with the approval of the three legislatures of the current NAFTA participants.

All of the hemisphere's nations, except Cuba, have signed framework agreements, basically an expression of their interest in a regional free-trade zone, dubbed the Enterprise of the Americas Initiative under the Bush administration. Many enthusiastically back NAFTA.

Argentina is considered the next likely candidate to join NAFTA after Chile, as are Venezuela and Colombia, currently in the final stages of negotiating a separate trade pact with Mexico.

Although Latin Americans have had their own free-trade association for more than three decades, trade among member countries has actually decreased in that time. Now known as the Latin American Integration Association, the trade group has been unable to overcome problems stemming from the disparate levels of development and a strong tradition of protectionism in the region.

Many Latin American leaders say NAFTA may be the best vehicle for reviving a foundering dream of increased intra-regional trade.

In recent years, Latin American countries have opened their closed economies to foreign investment, lowered trade barriers and sold state-owned enterprises. Governments have sharply cut back spending and reduced inflation.