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Nine Countries Gather In SD For Pacific Free Trade Pact

The 13th round of negotiations for a proposed Pacific Rim free trade zone began today in downtown San Diego while opponents demonstrated peacefully nearby.

The United States, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Chile and Peru are participating in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Canada and Mexico were invited but will not attend, according to the office of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

The agency posits that a Pacific free trade zone will allow the United States to export more products to Asia and Pacific nations, which will result in more jobs at home.

A coalition of opponents affiliated with organized labor and Occupy San Diego rallied for more than an hour outside the Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel, where the talks are being held over 10 days. They called for "fair trade," instead of free trade, and said any agreement will result in U.S. jobs being sent offshore.

"This not only contributes to the nation's severe unemployment problems, but it pushes down wages and benefits for the jobs we have left," said Lorena Gonzalez, chief executive officer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. "That means a smaller tax base to support our schools, our infrastructure, and other critical services."

She demanded that the negotiations include "a voice for working families."

Opponents of the proposed deal criticize what they believe is the secretive nature of the talks, in which even members of Congress have been shut out.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, told the audience at the rally that if he wins the San Diego mayoral election in November, he would be the official welcome person for such meetings in the future.

"I would welcome them with the following speech -- why aren't the rest of the folks here, why is this so private?" said Filner, who is running against Councilman Carl DeMaio for mayor.

He said one of his first votes as a congressman 20 years ago was against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Opponents maintain the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be a larger version of NAFTA, which includes the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

"NAFTA is a disasta'," Filner said in a rhyming tone.

Another area congressman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, did not attend the rally but issued a series of statements to the media last week in which he said he asked to attend the negotiations but was rebuffed.

Issa slammed the secretive talks and said he was concerned about intellectual property rights and Internet freedom. The Obama administration needs to be more transparent about what it's pushing for in the trade talks, he said.

Kirk tried to address the transparency issue with a statement earlier this month that said his office has engaged numerous stakeholder groups and individuals and invited the public, business and labor groups to the sites of three previous rounds of negotiations. The statement said, however, that the years-long negotiations often touched on sensitive topics that require confidentiality.

In 2011, businesses exported $66.1 billion worth of goods to the Asia-Pacific region, an area that accounts for 40 percent of global trade, according to the agency.

This evening, a five-night event called "People's Conference: A Better World Is Possible!" will begin at the Logan Heights Public Library. The conference will be in different locations each night.

Opponents plan to march through downtown on Saturday.

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