HIGHLY sensitive talks begun yesterday in Dallas could determine the fate of a proposed North American free-trade zone, several delegation sources said.
Sources close to the negotiations said the progress made in talks among representatives of Canada, Mexico, and the United States will determine whether the plan to remove trade barriers among the three countries will be sent to Congress in the spring or stalled until next year.
"It is a question of momentum," said one source in the Mexican delegation. "If all parties perceive that we are moving forward, then we will move rapidly ahead.
"But if things appear to slow, then everyone will start making political statements, and the whole thing will end up in a quagmire," the source said.
The talks are so sensitive that the public will be barred from all negotiating sessions and delegates speaking to reporters are asking that their names not be published.
The talks, begun Monday and continuing through Friday, bring together for the first time the chief negotiators from each country as well as 18 working groups. The chief negotiators are Julius Katz for the United States, John Weekes for Canada, and Herminio Blanco Mendoza for Mexico.
The working groups are wrestling with specific details, such as the 28,000 items now subject to tariffs in trade between the United States and Mexico, where there are many points of disagreement. In addition, there are peripheral issues pressuring the talks, such as air pollution and the killing of dolphins by tuna fishermen.
Michael Wilson, Canada's minister of international trade, has said his government still desires a continent-wide pact despite anger that a free-trade agreement between Canada and the United States has cost 461,000 Canadian jobs.
Timothy Bennett, a former US trade official and now a Washington-based consultant to Mexico, said the fate of the trade pact could well rest on the Dallas talks.
Negotiators finished a draft pact at the end of January, but sources have said that the text includes as many as 700 items that are bracketed because of disagreements.