A Latin American is set to take the helm of the World Trade Organization after the field for the agency's next director general has narrowed to Mexico's former trade minister Herminio Blanco and Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevedo.
The two are all that remains of an original list of nine candidates, the WTO announced Friday. The race pits an economist with a black-belt in karate versus a charismatic ambassador who is well-known in Geneva's international circles.
Whoever is eventually selected by the end of May will take on an organization that is at a crossroads, with the future of its role as a multilateral forum for negotiations in doubt.
While the Geneva-based WTO will remain an important institution for its dispute settlements and policy-monitoring functions, the rise of regional and bilateral trade functions has created doubts about whether the WTO is a place where negotiations can occur.
Blanco also was the chief representative for Mexico during NAFTA negotiations, a hard-fought deal that removed trade barriers to form one of the largest free-trade zones among Canada, United States and Mexico.
By helping to shape the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico gained foreign investment and significantly increased its exports but the deal has failed so far to lift the country's low wages.
Blanco has said it is time for the global organization to pick a Latin American director, and that being from Mexico should help him land the position.
Azevedo, who has insider knowledge of the WTO's workings, has said he'd strive to build consensus between developed and developing countries in hopes of resuming the so-called Doha Round of talks that began in 2001 but have not reached agreement.
The unwillingness of developing powerhouses like Brazil to cede to U.S. demands for greater market access was widely cited as one of the main stumbling blocks to the negotiations.
Brazil and other fast-growing developing nations are looking to take on bigger roles in major global financial and trade decisions, primarily within institutions like the WTO and International Monetary Fund.
They were selected after months of consultations among ambassadors from all 159 members, most of them nations but also some territories such as Hong Kong and Macau.
The original nine candidates to lead the Geneva-based organization, which deals with trade rules among nations, came from Ghana, Costa Rica, Indonesia, New Zealand, Kenya, Jordan and Korea.
The winner, who is selected by polling support among WTO members in confidential rounds of consultations, will succeed Director-General Pascal Lamy of France, whose second four-year term expires on Aug. 31.
Though nations take pride in leading one of the world's most important international organizations, officials say the candidates' qualities and experience matter more than a nation's trade policies.
"It's not an election, it's a selection," said Keith Rockwell, spokesman for the WTO. "You need a broad base of support across the geographical and developmental spectrum."