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In Chile, Clinton seeks patience on free trade

Clinton and Frei
Clinton and Frei
In this story: April 16, 1998
Web posted at: 11:10 p.m. EDT (0310 GMT)

SANTIAGO, Chile (CNN) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton asked Latin American trading partners Thursday to be patient with the United States and promised he would gain the expanded trade authority he thought he would get last year.

"Be patient with us," Clinton told an audience of American and Chilean business leaders that also included Chile's president, Eduardo Frei. "Just stay with us, we'll get there."

Clinton said the U.S. Congress' rejection last year of his request for fast-track authority to negotiate free-trade deals should not be interpreted as a U.S. return to protectionism.

"What I am doing my best to do is to persuade our Congress that walking away from what I believe to be a colossal opportunity with Chile and the rest of our partners in Latin America is neither the best way to lift labor standards nor to preserve the environment," he said.

Clinton was speaking during the first day of a four-day visit to Chile for this weekend's Summit of the Americas, which will feature talks on building a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone. Leaders from 34 of the 35 nations in the Western Hemisphere will attend. Cuba was not invited and will not participate.

Talks on building the free-trade area, which are targeted for completion by 2005, can proceed without fast track, Clinton said.

"Before they're done, we'll have it, and it'll work," he said.

Defeat of fast-track costs U.S. jobs


Clinton had hoped to be able to deliver to Chile permanent membership in the NAFTA free-trade agreement that now links the United States with Canada and Mexico, fulfilling a promise he made four years ago.

But he failed to win enough support in the U.S. House of Representatives for the agreement, which would let him negotiate free-trade deals that cannot be amended during the congressional approval process.

Opposition from members of Clinton's own Democratic party, concerned about the impact of free-trade deals on U.S. jobs and on the environment, caused the defeat.

But American business leaders in Chile say the delay is costing them up to $500 million a year.

"Places like Mexico, Canada, their products are coming in at more competitive rates than U.S. products, and we're losing market share," says Alex Fernandez, president of the American-Chilean Chamber of Commerce.

Clinton and Frei sign
Clinton and Frei sign agreements on education and environmental issues

Companies such as Chrysler, IBM and Coca-Cola are among the U.S. firms that now ship to Chile from factories outside the United States -- at the cost of U.S. jobs.

Earlier in the day, Clinton and Frei met privately and announced afterward that they would work for a free-trade deal that included both countries.

A democratic dynamo

During his speech, Clinton saluted Chile's "astonishing record" in transforming itself from one of Latin America's most militaristic regimes to a democratic dynamo in less than a decade.

"Latin America has grown so strong that I think even a lot of you are surprised," he told the audience. "Latin America has found its voice, its confidence and its well-earned seat at the international table."

Frei avoided discussing the sensitive trade issue in his appearance with Clinton. Departing from prepared remarks, Frei omitted an expression of Chile's interest in "barrier-free trade," and said that NAFTA was important, but not the only means for Chile to expand trade with its neighbors.

A senior U.S. official said a bilateral trade agreement with Chile could be developed outside NAFTA, although Chilean officials have previously said that no country-to-country progress could be made on trade as long as the U.S. lacked fast-track authority.

In the meanwhile, Chile has forged its own free-trade ties with its Latin American neighbors and Canada.

Clinton and Frei also unveiled plans to establish a Pan-American climate forecasting system for predicting climate fluctuations caused by weather patterns such as El Nino.

Clinton plugs environmental curbs

Among the other agreements they signed was one urging stronger efforts by both industrial and developing nations to curb air pollution that aggravates global warming.

Anti-Clinton students protest

Clinton said he knew environmental restrictions were controversial in many Latin American countries, but he said economic growth could go hand-in-hand with environmental progress.

They didn't have to look far to see the problems of air pollution in a developing nation. Santiago's smog was so thick Thursday that Clinton had to travel from the airport by motorcade instead of by helicopter.

The two presidents also discussed several trade disputes, an "open skies" agreement to ease restrictions on air traffic and Chile's plans to buy $1 billion in fighter planes. The United States wants Chile to buy U.S.-made jets, but Chile remains noncommittal.

At one point, Clinton walked in hazy sunshine down Gran Avenida, a busy commercial street lined with thousands of people, including schoolchildren in blue and white uniforms, many of them chanting "Clinton, Clinton." A few bystanders chanted "Kennedy," apparently in reference to the popular former U.S. president.

In another part of town, police used tear gas and water canons to disperse an anti-Clinton crowd of several thousand students who were blocking traffic and burning American flags.

Clinton will address a joint session of Chile's Congress on Friday.

Correspondent John King and Reuters contributed to this report.


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