Despite election-year political attacks and a pervasive national unease about globalization, Georgians shouldn’t fear pending free trade agreements with U.S. allies in Latin America, a State Department official said in his native Atlanta.

Charles Shapiro, senior coordinator of the department’s Western Hemisphere FTA Task Force, visited the Georgia capital once again on July 14 to promote the benefits of the pacts negotiated with Colombia, Panama and Peru over the last two years.

Mr. Shapiro said lowering trade borders has positively affected Georgia since he graduated from North Atlanta High School nearly 40 years ago.

When he left Georgia in 1971, the state only had one office abroad. A smattering of honorary consuls, mostly local professionals with interests in certain countries, represented foreign governments in Atlanta.

Today, Atlanta has blossomed from a “small, regional city” into an international trade and logistics hub. Career diplomats now preside over many of the capital’s 57 consulates, most of which handle their government’s affairs for the entire Southeast.

More than 112,000 Georgians work for foreign-owned companies, which pay 20 percent more on average than domestic outfits, he said.

Georgia now has 11 international trade offices. The ports of Savannah and Brunswick are seeing record traffic, bi-national chambers of commerce are flourishing and 8 million international passengers passed through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport last year.

Still, in the battle for public opinion, even the most impressive macroeconomic data can’t win over those who have felt the sting of job loss.

During a presentation in another city, Mr. Shapiro was met with an angry question from the union leader of the General Motors plant in Doraville that is set to close down in September.

The confrontation illustrates the conditions that give rise to a disdain for trade that can be combated only by enacting policies that level the playing field for American workers and products in key markets, said Mr. Shapiro.

During a speech and question-and-answer session at the Southern Center for International Studies, Mr. Shapiro made the case that bilateral agreements with the three Latin American countries do just that.

Most exports from Colombia, Peru and Panama currently enter the U.S. duty-free, while U.S. exports to those countries face hefty tariffs that sometimes cripple their ability to compete.

While Colombian coffee enters the U.S. without taxes, exports of dark chicken meat from big poultry-producing states like Georgia face 179 percent tariffs that would be immediately eliminated if Congress signs the agreement.

Despite their relatively small size as individuals, Colombia, Peru and Panama together have more than 80 million people in economies that are growing at 7 percent, 8 percent and 10 percent respectively and have an aggregate buying power of $500 billion.

“There’s a gigantic demand for products. They’re going to buy them, whether it’s from the U.S. or somebody else,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Georgia, which exported $20 billion worth of goods last year, has made a concerted effort to boost its trade with Latin America, Ken Stewart, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said while introducing Mr. Shapiro.

The state promoted Atlanta as the potential site for the secretariat, or host city, of a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, a now-stalled initiative that would’ve linked the democracies of the Western Hemisphere into a single trading bloc.

“I know things have slowed down a bit, but we have not given up,” Mr. Stewart said of the secretariat bid.

Atlanta accounted for nearly 60 percent of the state’s exports in 2006. The city will host the Americas Competitiveness Forum in August for the second straight year. Mr. Stewart pointed to these achievements as indicators of Atlanta’s ascendancy as a hemispheric hub.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re going to get there,” he said.

Mr. Shapiro could say the same of the two agreements still facing legislative approval. The Peru agreement easily passed both houses of Congress when it came to a vote late last year, but Colombia and Panama await ratification.

When President Bush attempted to force a vote on the Colombia agreement in the House of Representatives, Democrats blocked the measure and Speaker Nancy Pelosi shelved the agreement indefinitely.

Mr. Shapiro said the Panama pact is likely to pass, but it is stuck behind Colombia in the legislative queue.

“It’s tied up at a time when our economy is going through a downturn and the part of the U.S. economy growing the most rapidly is exports,” he said.

Camilo de Bedout, Colombia’s consul general in Atlanta, told GlobalAtlanta that gaining public support for the agreement comes down to educating the skeptics.

Mr. de Bedout has spoken at schools and businesses to try and rectify a negative perception of Colombia influenced by the country’s tumultuous past and negative media coverage.

“They have to see the whole picture,” he said, calling the pact a “win-win relationship” that would improve both economies as well as the security situation in the region.

Although Mr. Shapiro’s focus limited the discussion at the event to the Latin American agreements, Jorge Fernandez of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce mentioned a pending free trade agreement with South Korea as “equally important.”

The vice president of the chamber’s global commerce division encouraged event attendees “to become advocates and engage in citizen diplomacy with our community to endorse what free trade is doing for American companies going overseas.”

Mr. Shapiro served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2002-2004 and head of the office of Cuban affairs from 1999-2001. He has returned to Atlanta many times to promote free trade.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...