THE European Union often describes itself as the biggest trading block in the world but if the Free Trade Area of The Americas (FTAA) were ever to come into existence the EU would be dwarfed by an association of 850 million people in 33 countries stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. If ever.... are the key words, as the fourth meeting of these countries, which came to an end last night, has shown. FTAA was proposed in Miami eleven years ago by President Clinton in a distinctly euphoric atmosphere but since then much has worked against the idea and today some countries, especially president Chavez's Venezuela, are distinctly hostile to it. There is a strong feeling that the greatest advantages in a hemispheric free trade area would fall to the richer countries. The United States believes that pulling down trade barriers leads to growth, prosperity, and free societies and President Bush's hope for this summit conference had been that it would restore momentum to FTAA, if only to a small degree. President Chavez has made it clear that he came to the summit to bury FTAA for all time but it seems unlikely that he will have succeeded in doing that. President Vicente Fox of Mexico has suggested that FTAA should go forward with those countries ready to participate in it, leaving the others to join when they feel ready to do so. If this approach is not accepted the summit will have to content itself with a general approval of its vapid theme of Creating Jobs to Fight Poverty and Strengthen Democracy. In that case President Bush may think that his journey to Argentina was hardly necessary; however, he is travelling on to Brazil, the largest and potentially most important nation of the sub-continent. The protests against Mr Bush and the United States during the past few days have to some extent been routine but they have also reflected a deeply-felt belief that the US is not the solution to Central and South America's economic difficulties but the cause of them.
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