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WTO breakdown: Why the walkout? *LINK*

Elizabeth Becker/NYT NYT

The U.S. presidential campaign is seen behind collapse of accord on farm aid

CANCUN, Mexico It may be more than a year away, but the U.S. presidential election is already throwing a long shadow. In Cancún, Mexico, it was enough to trigger a walkout this weekend by developing nations, convinced that it was hopeless to expect any realistic negotiations with the Americans this year on farm subsidies.

With the breakdown of talks meant to help the Group of 21 developing countries, opinions were divided about the impact of their decision to reject a draft proposal in which they would have opened up their markets to foreign investment in return for cuts in agricultural subsidies. But there was widespread agreement - outside the United States - that they had little choice.

There were some who doubted the wisdom of the developing countries. Stefan Tangermann of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said he feared the countries had given up a rare opportunity to start cutting down the $300 billion in annual agricultural subsidies that distorts world trade and undermines the poorest farmers around the world.

"It is a very deplorable outcome," he said, shaking his head.

But several senior delegates from advanced countries with little at stake in the agricultural talks said the developing nations had had little choice but to walk out given the restraints caused by the upcoming presidential campaign.

Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, had promised that Washington was prepared to cut its multibillion-dollar farm subsidies. But the compromise proposal essentially left that farm program intact. It also gave American cotton farmers a reprieve despite appeals from four of Africa's poorest nations.

"Bob Zoellick is a master at strategy, and I think he had little room here," a senior delegate said. "President Bush was not going to upset his farmers before his re-election."

Before the talks broke off, American farmer groups attending the conference here said they were pleased that Zoellick had been able to protect most of the farm bill passed in 2002, which raised subsidies by $40 billion.

"He did his very best," said Robert Stallman, head of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "The ambassador has done an excellent job.'"

Farm states voted heavily in favor of Bush in the 2000 election.

In addition, agribusiness, which profits from the low cost of corn, soybeans and other crops subsidized by American taxpayers, has shifted its allegiance decisively toward the Republican Party. Political contributions from agribusiness jumped to $53 million last year from $37 million in 1992, with the Republicans' share rising to 72 percent from 56 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Peter Gaemelke, who as head of the European farmers' group is Stallman's counterpart, said Zoellick had done his job too well.

"This should not be a meeting just to elect Mr. Bush," he said.

Zoellick implicitly rejected such calculations Sunday when he said the United States was one of the "very few countries" prepared to negotiate big changes that favored developing nations. "They missed the opportunity to cut our subsidies," he said.

In fairness, the American farm provisions, while the central issue, were not the developing nations' only reason to quit the talks. Europe's demand that the world trading body negotiate new rules covering investment, trade facilitation and two other areas was the straw that finally collapsed the talks.

To developing nations, the new outline for the trade talks seemed aimed at rewarding the two giants - Europe and the United States - for making the beginnings of changes in their agricultural system rather than tackling the issue wholeheartedly.

But rather than act like fringe players bent on destroying the World Trade Organization, the group of 21 developing nations presented their decision as a strong assertion that they are now a power bloc to be reckoned with.

"There will now be respect for our group as an actor," Foreign Minister Celso Amorim of Brazil said.

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WTO breakdown: Why the walkout? *LINK*
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