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Customs harmonization a priority at hemispheric FTAA
Journal of Commerce / June 1, 1998

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON -- Efforts to harmonize customs procedures throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have moved a step closer to fruition, thanks to the recent Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile.

At the mid-April gathering -- attended by 34 heads of state -- delegates decided to place customs harmonization under the Market Access committee, one of several committees set up to conduct negotiations aimed at creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2005.

"Market access basically means exporters being able to get their products into a country, with a lot of barriers. That's why customs procedures fall so clearly into that category," says Lynn Gordon, director of the South Florida Customs Management Center, the Miami division of the U.S. Customs Service.

Gordon said in an interview that "getting the support of all the customs directors is very critical," and that for the first time, the annual Symposium of the Americas -- whose organizers have signed up 900 attendees to date -- includes a two-day meeting Jun. 1-2 of top customs officials from all 34 participating nations.

Douglas Tweddle, director of compliance and facilitation at the Brussels-based World Customs Organization (WCO), will moderate a panel discussion on harmonizing customs procedures globally. Also on the panel: Argentina's Juan Jose Sortheix, former deputy secretary-general of the WCO; Douglas M. Browning, acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs; Selig Merber, a General Electric attorney in charge of international trade regulations and sourcing, and Fermin Cuza, vice-president of international trade, consumer and government affairs at Mattel Inc.

"Harmonization is going to be a very big topic on their agenda," said Gordon. "Part of the Uruguay Round is that signatories will adopt standard customs procedures globally, so there's pressure coming from the World Trade Organization. We also have our own efforts dealing with the hemisphere. The obvious thing to do is adopt the global procedures and add some of our own."

By common agreement, Colombia will chair the Market Access committee -- which may seem ironic in light of the Clinton administration's decision to "decertify" Colombia's anti-drug efforts for two years in a row, in 1996 and 1997. But this year, a "national interest waiver" saved Colombia from that fate, and the threat of U.S. economic sanctions against Colombia has virtually disappeared.

"We have very good relationship with Colombia. The decertification dealt with narcotics, and this is trade, " says Gordon. "There are a lot of issues that overlap, because illegal drug shipments are often within cargo shipments. But we have a new program in which we've gone down to Colombia and have met with thousands of businessmen. We're trying to get them to take precautions. There's a lot they can do to help secure their shipments, so unauthorized people don't tamper with them."

Peter Allgeier, associate U.S. trade representative for the Western Hemisphere, said the FTAA will be a "comprehensive" agreement.

"It'll obviously go beyond existing disciplines in the WTO and elsewhere," he said. "It will create a single set of rules in those areas which it covers, superseding the rules that exist in sub-regional arrangements, such as Mercosur, the Central American Common Market and so forth."

Allgeier defended the U.S. role in the FTAA process from critics who say the lack of fast-track negotiating approval by Congress raises questions about the Clinton administration's commitment to hemispheric free trade.

"The fact that Brazil and the United States are co-chairs [of the negotiations] sends a message that we are committed to bringing this to a successful conclusion by 2005," he told The Journal of Commerce. "We're all prepared to move ahead on these negotiations right now. That was what impressed me the most in Santiago, how firmly all the leaders said we're moving forward, even in the absence of fast-track -- because they recognize that for the foreseeable future, we don't needs the fast-track to move into the neogtiations."

Speaking of customs harmonization, Allgeier said "we're looking at different kinds of business facilitation measures. These are measures, such as the transparency agreement on government procurement, that can be taken now or in the near future that don't have to wait until the end of negotiations."

Allgeier declined to discuss such measures in detail, explaining that "we're in the process of clearing those within the administration. He did say, however, that "there is a Cancun agreement on expediting express courier deliveries through Customs. If we get people to sign on to that agreement, it would set up procedures allowing shipments to move through Customs very quickly. This would be of interest to a lot of people in the business community, not just Customs."

Allgeier also said a committee on electronic commerce would be set up, to begin its negotiations in Miami no later than Sept. 30. Its members would report to the trade ministers of all 34 signatory nations.

"Government and private-sector experts will look at the phenomenon of electronic commerce and expand its benefits in the hemisphere," he said. "They'll also examine what implications it may have for construction of the Free Trade Area."

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