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Waiting Game

In December, Guatemala endorsed Miami's bid to house the headquarters, or secretariat, of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. It was the sixth endorsement, state officials bragged, helping Miami distance itself from Atlanta, which also wants to host the FTAA. Miami is also competing against Panama City, Panama; Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; and other contenders for the prize.

But with negotiations stalled on the 34-nation agreement, the selection of a permanent FTAA home is on indefinite hold. Trade officials failed to meet the self-imposed Dec. 31, 2004, deadline for signing an accord and have no timetable for kick-starting the failed talks. "Without an FTAA, there is no secretariat," says Robin Rosenberg, a researcher at the University of Miami specializing in inter-American trade issues.

Jorge L. Arrizurieta heads up Miami's effort to land the FTAA secretariat.

And without a secretariat, the state would miss out on 89,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to one estimate.

The impasse stems, in large part, from Brazil's opposition to U.S. price supports and other subsidies and U.S. demands for tariff reductions and greater protections for U.S. corporations operating overseas. Rosenberg says the U.S. is betting that its recently signed Central American Free Trade Agreement and proposed bilateral agreements with Chile, Panama and the Andean countries (all of which require congressional approval) will provide political leverage that could force Brazil and its allies to the bargaining table.

Some observers say the vacancy created by the recent nomination of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to the No. 2 post at the State Department could further delay the process by creating a leadership void at a time when intense lobbying and diplomatic skills are needed to finalize the FTAA. In any case, few people offer hope of an agreement being reached this year.

Uncertainty hasn't tempered Miami's enthusiasm for the secretariat. "We're the logical choice, and leaders around the hemisphere are recognizing that," says Jorge L. Arrizurieta, president of Florida FTAA Inc., a public-private group created to coordinate Miami's bid. Most insiders say Miami and Port-of-Spain are the top contenders. In addition to support from Guatemala, Miami has received endorsements from the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica. President Bush has not thrown his support behind Miami's bid but is expected to do so later this year.

Rosenberg doesn't expect much progress, at the earliest, until the Summit of the Americas in Argentina in November, when trade ministers will have a chance to iron out some of their differences.

"The important thing is that the political imperative is still there," says Rosenberg. "There may be some challenges to overcome, but the FTAA has a life of its own, and it's not going away."