Leaders of Latin America's 4-nation Pacific Alliance trade bloc meet to discuss final form

The presidents of Colombia, Peru, Chile and Mexico meet in the western city of Cali on Thursday in hopes of completing a nascent trade bloc that looks to the European Union as a model and aims to further open their trade with Asia.

The leaders of Canada, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Spain, all interested in eventually joining the bloc, are due to attend as observers. Costa Rica was signing a free trade agreement with Colombia on Wednesday.

The Pacific Alliance was formally inaugurated last June. All its members but Colombia already belong to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific-wide trading bloc that includes Canada and the United States.

In a televised speech Tuesday night, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, an economist and former foreign trade minister, called the alliance essential to "the most important process of integration in the history of Latin America."

"The more markets we open, the greater the possibilities for mobility and connection among our countries (and) the more employment opportunities and progress," he said.

Colombia's trade minister, Sergio Diaz-Granados, told The Associated Press that the four alliance members want not only to lift trade barriers, but also to encourage the free flow of citizens working and living in each other's countries. He said one initiative would create an education fund to encourage cross-border study.

The four countries have negotiated 90 percent of the commercial part of the alliance, and hope to finish the rest before the end of 2013, Diaz-Granados said.

Santos and his counterparts from the three other member nations, Ollanta Humala of Peru, Sebastian Pinera of Chile and Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico, will also discuss eventually including other members, Diaz-Granados said.

Santos noted Tuesday that the alliance members together have 210 million inhabitants, or 35 percent of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean, and have a combined GDP of $1.5 trillion and $18 billion in interregional trade amounting to half the region's total trade, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Early this month, Peru said it would no longer require visas for business executives from Chile, Mexico and Colombia. In November, Mexico stopped requiring visas for Colombian and Peruvian citizens involved in compensated activities for up to 180 days.

"This is an ambitious process," said Carolyn Robert, a trade expert at the Inter-American Development Bank. "I think it goes beyond a FTA (free trade agreement) because this puts in free circulation products, services, people and capital."

Other trade blocs in the region, such as Mercosur, have proposed similar goals but without success, she said. Mercosur comprises Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela.

Economics professor Cesar Ferrari of Bogota's Javierana University said the Pacific Alliance's members "wish to come close to the European model, the most successful process of integration that the entire world has tried to emulate."