By Harry R. Weber
The Associated Press
ATLANTA - Foreign trade representatives from five South American countries met Friday with business leaders in Atlanta, which wants to be the headquarters for a Western Hemisphere free trade zone.
The gathering with trade ministers and Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiators from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela included a roundtable with Atlanta corporate leaders, including representatives of Delta Air Lines and Equifax.
Officials also toured Atlanta's Carter Center.
The FTAA would include 34 nations from Canada to Chile. It is scheduled to take effect in 2005 and would be the world's largest free-trade zone.
The host city will get about 11,000 new jobs, plus a chance for more international investment, officials said. Miami, Port-of-Spain in Trinidad, Panama City and Puebla, Mexico, are also vying to be the trade zone headquarters.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other state political leaders have started their official appeal for Miami to be named the permanent site of the FTAA.
In a letter sent Thursday to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Brazil's trade minister Luiz Fernando Furlan, Bush and the other leaders said they believe Miami is the most logical location for the permanent secretariat.
"We are convinced due to our longstanding and vibrant trade relationship and the dynamic cultural linkages between Florida and the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, a Miami-based Secretariat would offer the FTAA nations unparalleled advantages and benefits," read the letter, signed by Bush and four other South Florida political leaders.
Atlanta argues that its airport, the nation's busiest, and business-friendly government make it a better candidate. It will send a delegation to FTAA negotiations in Miami in November to lobby for Atlanta's selection.
A decision on the host city is not expected until next year.
Jose Gonzalez, a Georgia businessman from Colombia who is helping Atlanta lure the headquarters, said the trade ministers and negotiators are convinced the FTAA will have positive effects in their countries and on their economies.
"There is a consensus to the group and they are negotiating in unison. They feel together they present a better voice."
Gonzalez said the five countries present at the Atlanta meetings did express some concerns about the free trade zone.
"Some of the concerns they expressed on an individual basis are what final shape the FTAA will have, when is the agreement going to be dealt with and issues of when the different aspects of FTAA will kick in for different countries," he said.
President Bush has touted the trade bloc as a way to spur growth in developing nations and America. But negotiations have run into problems as many poor nations are starting to reject open-market reforms pushed by rich countries.
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