Ambassador argues for free trade


Cinncinnati Enquirer / Cinncinnati.Com
By James Pilcher
April 30, 2009

After 20 years with the State Department, including a stint as the ambassador to Venezuela, Charles S. Shapiro knows all the intricacies of international trade agreements and the macroeconomic arguments for and against them.

But to him, the issue boils down to issues such as roses and potato chips.

"Procter & Gamble makes Pringles, but there is a tariff of 20 percent in Colombia on processed food products … but at the same time, we import 70 percent of our flowers from Colombia , including the roses for Mother’s Day," said Shapiro in an interview this morning after he addressed the Global Center of Greater Cincinnati, a local group advocating international trade.

"What people have to understand is that Colombian and Panamanian products already enter the United States duty free. It’s not like we’re going to give them additional access," Shapiro said. "What these agreements do is that they would give us reciprocal access to Panama and Colombia’s markets. It would reduce their tariffs on products imported from the United States."

Shapiro is one of the main architects of proposed trade agreements with both Panama and Colombia now under discussion. He said the two deals could be consummated within 12 months, freeing up barriers for U.S. exports to those countries. But he also said that politicians, diplomats, economists and corporate leaders have done a poor job of selling the free trade agreement to everyday workers, and that the current recession and rising unemployment makes the discussion even more difficult.

"If I go and talk to a business group, they’re in favor of free trade agreements, but if I go out and talk to ordinary American citizens, they are not," Shapiro said. "The fault is ours, the larger ours meaning not only the government, but businesses who don’t explain to their workers why trade is beneficial, academia, the media and to us as bureaucrats and politicians."

Shapiro is now the senior coordinator of the State Department’s western hemisphere free trade agreement task force, having previously served as the ambassador to Venezuela between 2002-2004, when he clashed many times with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. He said the recent Summit of the Americas, which wrapped up last week in Trinidad, showed the new more collaborative tone taken by the Obama administration toward Latin America.

"The American people do not understand trade. But we have not explained it in a way that people can understand it – we focus on the macroeconomic data, but all of us live in the microeconomic world and we have not come up with the language that will allow my mother’s next door neighbor to understand trade. Until that happens, it will continue to be a difficult conversation."

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