Japan and Mercosur, the South American common market comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, will step up cooperation, according to Alvaro Ramos, the foreign minister of Uruguay and leader of the Mercosur delegation.After three days of meetings with public and private sector officials, Ramos said in an interview Oct. 15 at The Japan Times that the two sides agreed to pursue more activities together and exchange information. “There are doubts about the economic environment in Latin America,” Ramos said. “We have open economies, offer clear treatment for foreign investment and we are looking for partners for infrastructure projects. But much of that is not understood.”Both sides recognize that there is a lack of information, despite the visits and the official exchanges,” Ramos added. But he expressed optimism that things are changing, pointing to the high level of officials involved in the meetings and the issues on the agenda.Mercosur’s four member states have a combined population of 210 million people and a gross domestic product of nearly $1 trillion. Their growth rate averaged 3.8 percent for the five years from 1991 to 1996, outpacing most developed countries.Ramos attributed the region’s recent appeal to its new mind-set. “South America is more pragmatic today,” he explained. “In the 1960s and ’70s, the rhetoric was louder. Now, business is taking the lead.”The results are evident in the new relationships in Latin America, he said. In addition to the Mercosur customs union, Bolivia and Chile have linked up with the group to form a free-trade area. Other Latin American nations have expressed interest in forming tie-ups and talks are also due to begin with the European Union. “The integration process is going well,” said Ramos. “We hope to have a free-trade agreement with Mexico by the end of the year and want to begin discussions on the Free-Trade Area of the Americas by 1998,” he added. The foreign minister also said that South America might take a page from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, where members do not make deep commitments but are guided by pragmatic concerns.

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