BY CHRONICLE STAFF
Latin America business leaders and experts are urging President Barack Obama to ask Congress to ratify pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama after his State of the Union speech Wednesday pledged to strengthen ties with those countries.
”Trade with Panama and Colombia remains stalled [with the Obama Administration] sending mixed signals,” Juan Manuel Carreon, president of Union Pacific de Mexico and chairman of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America (AACCLA), told an event in Miami today.
The event was organized by AACCLA, a trade group of 23 American chambers of commerce in Latin America that represents more than 20,000 companies and over 80 percent of U.S. investment in the region.
Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy, also urged the Obama Administration to make progress on the Colombia and Panama FTA’s.
Jerry Weller, chairman of New World Group and a former congressman from Illinois, said there are enough votes in Congress to pass the Colombia and Panama FTA’s today. “If Panama and Colombia are put up for a vote they will be ratified,” he said.
However, that would require that President Obama works actively to convince members of his own party that they need to approve the FTA’s, pointed out Port of Tampa CEO Richard Wainio.
It would also require that Obama send the bills to Congress quickly and that lawmakers hold their vote before the end of July since the following months will be focused on the November congressional elections, Weller says. “The closer to an election, [they’re] less likely to cast a vote,” he said.
Purcell also urged the Obama Administration to reach a free trade agreement with Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America.
Wainio agreed. “There’s huge room for [growth in] exports to Brazil,” he said. He also asked that governments throughout the hemisphere come together to remove obstacles for supply chain logistics. That would in turn spur more trade, Wainio pointed out.
Craig Kelly, the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs and a widely-respected career diplomat, said he was encouraged by President Obama’s reference to Colombia and Panama in his State of the Union speech. “We were delighted to see it,” he said. “There’s a strong realization that these trade agreements have benefited people in the region.”
However he declined to say whether Obama’s reference to Colombia and Panama meant the president would move on the FTA’s with those countries.
Purcell said she was not hopeful on Obama pushing for free trade with Latin America while continuing to promote increased statism in the United States.
The U.S.-Colombia FTA was signed in November 2006, while the U.S.-Panama FTA was signed in June 2007, but they have yet to be ratified by the US Congress. So far, the lack of the Colombia FTA has cost U.S. exporters more than $2.5 billion tariffs to Colombia, according to the Latin American Trade Coalition.
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