SAN JOSE — President Clinton and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, commenting from opposite coasts, said Wednesday their countries have initiated talks on a free trade agreement and agreed that formal negotiations should start as soon as possible.
Lagos, on a U.S. tour to attract technology investment in his country, announced the talks during a lunchtime speech in the heart of Silicon Valley. He made the announcement first in Spanish, drawing applause from Chilean business executives in the audience, then repeated it in English.
“Together with President Bill Clinton, we have decided to initiate negotiations in order to have a free trade agreement between Chile and the United States,” said Lagos, who spoke by phone with Clinton earlier in the day. “And I think if we do the right things in a short period of time, we can have a successful conclusion.”
Early discussions between the two sides began in mid-October, and Lagos said he expects the talks to continue with Clinton’s successor. Chile already has trade agreements with Canada and Mexico, and Lagos said his nation will seek a deal with the European Union.
Clinton said in a statement released by the White House that any Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Chile would “include labor and environmental provisions along the lines of the U.S.-Jordan FTA.”
“This endeavor reflects our mutual commitment to advancing free and open trade and investment in the Americas and around the world,” the statement said. “The negotiation of a bilateral free trade agreement between us will provide further impetus for the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) negotiations.”
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, said there’s no chance an agreement will be reached before the end of Clinton’s term. The first meeting will be held in Washington in mid-December and U.S. negotiators expect to go to Chile in January, he said. But he also said the administration is confident that Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore would continue the talks.
The socialist Chilean president has been meeting this week with prominent high-tech capitalists in hopes of bringing new investment to his country, which enjoys one of the healthiest economies in Latin America.
Lagos and Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison signed a deal Tuesday night that calls for the Internet company to provide software for a new online initiative by ENTEL Chile, one of the nation’s leading telecommunications companies.
ENTEL’s so-called business-to-business marketplace, billed as the first of its kind in Chile, will let companies buy and sell products and services online.
Lagos also met with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in Seattle on Monday, and while in San Jose on Wednesday he talked to Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers and Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Carly Fiorina.
Lagos stressed at each stop that Chile is a stable, modern economy with an advanced communications infrastructure. He is also embarking on an ambitious plan to make government services available online and wants all Chilean students to have Internet access by the end of his term, in 2006.
Chile has focused on seeking a bilateral trade agreement with the United States since U.S. congressional opposition killed Chile’s chance of becoming part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Mexico joined with the United States and Canada in signing NAFTA in 1994, and an invitation was extended to Chile to become a fourth nation covered by the agreement.
But, influenced by labor union opposition, Congress refused to grant Clinton the “fast track” authority he needs to negotiate free trade agreements with Chile and other countries.
Both Bush and Gore want Congress to re-enact fast-track legislation, which expired in 1997. Clinton failed to persuade the GOP-led Congress to renew it.
In a speech this summer, Bush said one of his first acts as president would be to push for the fast-track legislation.
“This will increase U.S investment and trade with Chile,” Lagos said Wednesday. “This means more jobs and better opportunities.”
The companies that Lagos met with in Silicon Valley also figure to benefit from a free trade agreement, because it would broaden the Chilean market and likely stimulate the increased foreign investment necessary for strong growth.
“Everybody prefers to work in an environment where things are stable, the markets are open, there are no surprises,” said Airton Gimenes, Hewlett-Packard’s vice president and general manager for Latin America.
HP has been doing business in Chile for seven years and claims to be the No. 2 computer seller there.
“This is a positive step,” Gimenes said.
On the Net:
Chile’s Foreign Investment Committee: http://www.foreigninvestment.cl