Presidents of four South American countries signed a common market accord Friday designed to boost trade and prosperity in the region.
The Southern Cone Common Market, to take effect Jan. 1, is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Chile and Bolivia have expressed interest in joining later and attended meetings here this week as observers."The road to regional integration is now irreversible," Argentine President Carlos Menem said in a speech Friday.
The common market, known as Mercosur in Spanish and Mercosul in Portuguese, encompasses nearly 200 million people and a gross national product of almost $800 billion.
Trade between the four partners has boomed from just over $4 billion in 1990 to $9 billion last year.
Negotiators were busy until Thursday trying to work out disagreements on the future of duty-free zones within the region and a common external tariff, the rate levied on goods imported from outside the bloc.
The nations decided that most products imported to the bloc will have a tariff ranging from zero to 20 percent.
Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay will be allowed 300 items exempted from that tariff structure, and Paraguay will be allowed 399.
Chile, which until a few months ago appeared more interested in trying to join the North American Free Trade Agreement, made a pitch to join with its South American neighbors.