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Bob McMillanAn Opinion

By Bob McMillan
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Pass Free Trade With Panama

According to the latest reports, President Obama now approves of the Congress taking action on a long delayed free-trade agreement with Panama. During the 2008 election, Obama had been very critical of former President George W. Bush and his approach to trade. Now the president is taking the position that the United States cannot pursue protectionist policies. That is a realistic positive change.

The free-trade agreement has to pass – sooner than later. The United States has a positive trade balance with Panama of more than $2 billion. And Panama has a significant growth potential for U.S. products.

Beyond the trade issue itself, there are other reasons to have a close bond with Panama. First, the U.S. dollar is the currency of the country – not behind the scenes but the actually currency of Panama. When you go into a store and see a sign that says $2.59, you do not need to take out a calculator and compute the cost. The cost is what the sign states.

Another positive in Panama is the culture. Because of a long U.S. presence in construction of the Panama Canal and operating it through 1999, the people of Panama are generally bicultural. Many Panamanians have attended U.S. colleges and universities. For example, both the current president of Panama and the administrator of the Panama Canal are graduates of Texas A&M. In addition, while Spanish is the official language of the country, most people in the business world are bilingual with English as their second language.

It is no wonder, based on the above, that the fourth place for Americans to buy a second home is in Panama. Only Florida, Arizona and North Carolina have more than Panama. And, by the way, there are more different kinds of birds in Panama than in Costa Rica.

In today’s global economy, Panama is both a commercial and financial crossroads. Almost 70 percent of the cargo transiting the Canal is destined to or from the United States. Our history with Panama is deep and cannot be ignored by the Congress in dealing with the passage of a free-trade agreement.

Looking forward, Panama is currently expanding the Canal to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. At a cost of some $5.25 billion, the project should be completed in 2014 – the one hundredth anniversary of the Canal’s opening in 1914. It is a massive undertaking, and up to this point has been carried out in the most transparent way.

It is very much in the interests of the United States to keep the strongest ties with Panama. The Congress should take action as soon as possible in this Session.

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