BOGOTA, Colombia -- The four nations of the Pacific Alliance may be getting some company as they aim to turn the fledgling bloc into a regional powerhouse and boost trade with Asia. On Thursday, the presidents of Costa Rica and Guatemala said they hoped to become full-fledged members of the group within months.
The Alliance — formed by Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru — held its seventh summit in Cali, Colombia Thursday amid aspirations that it might turn into a preeminent organization in a region stiff with competing blocs.
One of the prerequisites to joining the two-year-old Alliance is to have free-trade agreements with all members. Late Wednesday, Costa Rica and Colombia signed a free-trade deal that unlocked the entry door for the Central American nation.
During a meeting with some 400 regional business leaders Thursday, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez said his country has free-trade deals with Mexico, Colombia, and Chile and hopes to have one finalized with Peru within the next four months.
Pérez also announced that Guatemala was dropping visa requirements for Colombians and proposed to Peruvian President Ollanta Humala that the two nations also drop travel requirements.
“We’re trying to shorten our entry time [into the Alliance] as much as possible and show that we’re serious,” Pérez said. But he acknowledged that cutting a similar travel deal with Mexico would be complicated because Guatemalans use the neighboring country as a route into the United States.
The Alliance’s goal is to drop barriers on labor, finance, and trade and consolidate itself as a nexus for commerce with Asia.
Among the resolutions of this summit, the group agreed to begin dropping tariffs on 90 percent of all goods, and create a common visa that will allow tourists to travel between all four nations. In addition, Peru agreed to lift business visa requirements for Alliance members.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos assumed the helm of the bloc Thursday from his Chilean counterpart Sebastián Piñera. In his opening remarks, Santos said that 25 years ago Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had said the 21st Century would belong to the Pacific and Latin America.
“That statement was clairvoyant,” Santos said. “The Asian Pacific is the new global pole for development and Latin America wants to be a partner in that development.”
The Alliance’s ambitious agenda has drawn international attention, and attracted more than a dozen observer nations. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Canadian PM Stephen Harper attended the event, raising hopes that the Alliance might someday expand beyond Latin America.
Along with nine existing observer nations, seven more were included: Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Honduras, Paraguay, Portugal and the Dominican Republic.
The summit comes as the region has been enjoying a commodities boom and GDP growth that would make the United States and Europe envious. But Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla warned that the good times might not last. She said that when U.S. President Barack Obama visited her country last month, he made clear that his trade priorities were the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement — a grouping of nine nations, including Peru and Chile — and a trade agreement with the European Union.
“Latin America cannot be left behind,” she said. She also seemed to take a dig at other regional initiatives that were rich on rhetoric but short on results.
“We’ve had enough of ideology, slogans, and trying to find scapegoats,” she said. “We have to assume our responsibility and complete the work that remains to be done in terms of development. Being part of [the Alliance] means we’ll have the right incentives to create a responsible agenda.”
While the Alliance has had an “auspicious start,” its future remains far from certain, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “There is kind of a disconnect to some extent between some of the great projections and expectations and the real continuing deficiencies in key areas like infrastructure,” he said.