THE BLOG
04/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Panama Opportunity

President Barack Obama will soon be making his first trip to Latin America to attend the Summit of the Americas. This visit is an important opportunity for the President to promote core U.S. values of democracy and freedom. Before his historic trip, President Obama should lay the foundation of these principles by signaling that his Administration will seek quick passage of pending trade agreements with Panama and Colombia that have long stalled in Congress and whose future is uncertain.

Passage of these agreements would immediately strengthen the relationship with these important allies and signal positive U.S. economic engagement in this vital region.

Our economy needs exports. Over 95 percent of the world's population lives outside of the United States. We must look beyond our borders to increase market access for U.S. businesses to grow and create American jobs.

The Panama and Colombia free trade agreements (FTAs) will help level the playing field for U.S. exports of goods and services. In fact, today some 5,600 American businesses export to Panama. Over 4,000 of these are small or medium-sized companies. Passage of the Panama agreement will empower these companies to expand their market opportunities and in doing so boost U.S. exports - one of the few bright spots in the economy. President Obama should call on Congress to pass the U.S.-Panama FTA without further and needless delay.

These FTAs would not only eliminate tariffs, boost U.S. exports and increase economic engagement, but they also would also solidify America's presence in Latin America, a key strategic region.

Too often we forget that this region has been historically unstable. Today, we battle for the hearts and minds of the Continent against Hugo Chavez and his allies. Now more than ever, the United States must assist our Latin American friends and pass these pending trade agreements.

With U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk in office, we should quickly advance the U.S. trade policy agenda. While labor unions have slowed action on the Colombian agreement, there is no reason to delay the Panama FTA.

We face a pivotal decision: Does the United States promote policies that lead to domestic job creation, or do we pursue a protectionist agenda that sets an example of our Latin American allies that shuns the economic freedoms we have long sought?

Plus with Panama, we have another strong reason to move quickly: Panama is soon accepting bids for Latin America's largest public works project - a multi-billion dollar modernization of the Panama Canal. The Panama FTA gives US companies an equal shot in this huge project.

The Panama FTA should pass before the President's trip, but he can and should signal that he also wants action on the Colombia FTA.

Given the Congressional move to protectionism on "Buy American" in the stimulus package and the treaty violating restriction on Mexican trucks in to the United States, President Obama needs something soon to calm the world that we are not closing our borders from the world. Passage of relatively non-controversial FTAs with our pro-democracy friends in is an obvious answer.

If President Obama is serious about promoting our exports, if he is serious about tackling the ills of our economy, if he is serious about strengthening our friendships in Latin America, he must endorse the pending U.S. free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia and seek swift Congressional approval in Congress.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.