Focus on Panama, Colombia Free Trade Agreements

Published on: 10:06AM Apr 21, 2009
By Jim Wiesemeyer

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

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Improving odds for FTAs with Panama, Colombia. The Obama administration and trade agreement proponents in Congress are trying to put several long-pending trade pacts back on the near-term agenda, despite deep skepticism on Capitol Hill among many lawmakers.

Panama: U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Monday that a delegation from Panama will visit Washington this week to try to resolve disputes over the US-Panama trade deal, including issues relating to internationally recognized worker rights and Panama possibly being a tax haven. While declining to give a timeline, Kirk said Panama’s own political situation may yield a “discrete” window to push the trade deal through — a reference to the nation’s coming May presidential elections -- Panamanians will elect a new president on May 3 who will be inaugurated on July 1. Panamanian officials want the FTA approved before the new president comes into office.

Colombia: Kirk said President Obama hopes to clear remaining obstacles to a separate pact with Colombia. At the direction of Obama, USTR officials will immediately start reviewing outstanding issues regarding the Colombia FTA to enable the pact to be submitted to Congress as soon as those issues are resolved, Kirk said. Ultimately, Obama — who met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe during the summit — believes that “a resolution of the Colombia trade agreement would be a good thing for both economies,” Kirk said, who noted Obama has asked him to follow up and take the lead in meeting with the Colombian ambassadors and others to map out a strategy to identify remaining issues.

An invite to Washington. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough said that Obama has said he would like to visit Colombia on his next trip to Latin America and has invited Uribe to Washington. “We don't have a date for that, but he does look forward to continuing a conversation and the relationship that he has built with President Uribe,” he said.

Regarding the proposed U.S.-Korea FTA, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee — Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — wrote Obama on Monday asking him to “begin the hard work of winning broad approval” of a trade pact with South Korea, which is stalled due to resistance from U.S. automakers and concerns over restrictions on the Asian nation’s beef imports. Grassley and Baucus noted North Korea’s widely condemned missile launch on April 5, adding that the trade deal would “anchor our economic presence in Asia.” They said South Korea would remain a steadfast ally to the U.S. in the future, and that they looked forward to the visit of South Korean president Lee Myung-bak to Washington D.C. in June. NAFTA: Regarding Obama's campaign promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Kirk said that all three leaders of the NAFTA parties believe that “we should look for opportunities to strengthen NAFTA.” Kirk said he would be meeting with his counterparts at an appropriate time to put more “form on that.” However, “the president has said we will look at all of our options, but I think they can be addressed without having to reopen the agreement,” he said. Obama had been particularly critical of NAFTA's labor and environmental provisions as a candidate.

Mexico delays action on combination container shipments. Mexico said it would delay until July 1 implementation of a plan to require inspections of the bottom, middle and top of combo bins of meat shipments. U.S. interests argued the plan would have required a significant increase in inspections and caused a harmful delays in U.S. meat shipments. A meeting in Mexico next Monday is planned on the matter.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.