With a Democrat in the White House, free trade agreements are more likely to win Congressional approval, expanding foreign markets for U.S. companies, Charles S. Shapiro, a senior U.S. State Department official and former ambassador to Venezuela told GlobalAtlanta.
“They can’t ignore President Obama the way they could ignore a president from another party,” Mr. Shapiro said, referring to the inaction by the Democratic majority in Congress on free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The agreements were negotiated during the administration of President George W. Bush but have yet to be approved by Congress.
Mr. Shapiro is a native of Atlanta who currently heads the State Department’s task force on free trade agreements in the Western Hemisphere. He will speak in Atlanta Thursday, May 7, along with Steve Green, chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority.
President Obama has instructed U.S. Trade Representative Ronald Kirk, “to take a serious look at what needs to be done to get the pending trade agreements through Congress,” said Mr. Shapiro.
The Panamanian and Colombian trade agreements would give U.S. exporters much broader access to the markets in those countries, said Mr. Shapiro.
“What it does is it figures out how to allow U.S. exporters to have the same access to their markets as those countries have to the United States already,” said Mr. Shapiro. “Let me repeat that. Panama and Colombia already have duty-free access in the United States for something like 95 percent of their exports.”
If Congress fails to approve the trade agreements, U.S. companies will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, said Mr. Shapiro, because Latin American countries are negotiating free trade agreements with other countries. “Colombia and Peru are busy negotiating with the European Union right now,” he said. “Colombia has an agreement with Canada. Peru is negotiating with China. What it will do if other country’s products can enter those countries duty free while U.S. products continue to pay duties, is put us at a disadvantage. I don’t think we want to do that.”
As a candidate for president, Mr. Obama criticized free trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the free trade agreement with South Korea. “If South Korea is selling hundreds of thousands of cars to the United States and we can only sell less than 5,000 in South Korea, something is wrong,” Mr. Obama said during the campaign.
Mr. Shapiro said President Obama has instructed Mr. Kirk, the trade representative, to talk to all the stakeholders on the trade bills. “In this administration the idea of who the stakeholders are may have changed somewhat,” said Mr. Shapiro. “It’s not only business groups but he should go out and talk to labor, talk to human rights organizations and figure out what needs to be done so that he can build that support.”
In addition to work on the free trade agreements, Mr. Shapiro also helped prepare for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in April that attracted leaders of 34 countries. He even served as the temporary U.S. ambassador there for six weeks before the summit.
When a U.S. president travels abroad, 1,000 people may travel with him along with everything from communications equipment to armored limousines, said Mr. Shapiro.
A major news event at the summit was the handshake between President Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. A simple handshake does not necessarily signify better relations between the two countries, said Mr. Shapiro, but it may be a start. “It’s hard to see how they would get better without being able to talk courteously to each other,” said Mr. Shapiro. ”At previous summits, President Bush just avoided talking to Chavez.”
Cuba was also a topic of discussion at the summit. Latin American countries have been urging President Obama to normalize relations with Cuba and he has lifted some trade and travel restrictions to the communist island nation.
“President Obama made it very clear that he wanted to see some changes on the Cuban part as well,” said Mr. Shapiro. “We’ll see what comes of that. It takes two to tango.”
Mr. Shapiro’s speech, at the Ritz Carlton Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Road, is sponsored by the World Chamber of Commerce and is open to the public. Also scheduled to speak is Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock). Tickets are $15 for chamber members and $25 for non-members. Purchase tickets here. For more information, call Solange Warner at (678) 938-4605 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org