Latin America is the newest frontier for free trade agreements, U.S. Ambassador to Peru Mike McKinley told University of Florida faculty and students in a public meeting Monday.
McKinley discussed the economic and political benefits of free trade agreements that would eliminate tariffs and expand commerce between the U.S. and Latin America.
"We are part of the world economy," he said in an interview before the meeting. "Our economy depends on active engagement."
A trade agreement between the U.S. and Peru is being implemented, while negotiations in Panama and Colombia are pending, McKinley said.
Nearly one-third of the U.S. gross domestic product comes from imports and exports, he said during the meeting.
In Florida alone, exports to Latin America have skyrocketed from $24 billion in 2002 to $40 billion in 2006, McKinley said in an interview.
Foreign companies employ about 200,000 workers in Florida, while one-ninth of jobs in the state depend on exports. Those jobs pay 18 to 32 percent more than their counterparts, he added.
Trade in Latin America has become more competitive with world players such as China, Canada and the European Union racing to secure trade agreements, McKinley said.
Graduate student Osvaldo Jordan said after the meeting that he thinks the U.S. should withhold trade agreements with Panama until its government improves environmental and human rights policies.
Jordan, a political science major from Panama, believes the standard of living in his country is decreasing. He is the only member of his family who lives in the U.S.
Other students and faculty raised similar questions about the quality of environmental and human rights standards in Latin American businesses.
In response, McKinley explained that free trade agreements are expected to promote economic, political and social growth in Latin American countries while opening the United States to a wider job market.
He believes instability in Latin America contributed to a decrease in free trade during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
McKinley added that drug trafficking, illegal immigration and political unrest created a cycle of economic boom and bust in Latin America.
"It's important for Latin America to break out of that cycle," he said in an interview.
McKinley will spend the rest of the week traveling through Florida visiting business owners, government officials and media outlets to explain the benefits of free trade in Latin America.
"(Free trade) is happening all around us," he said. "There's no cutting off the outside world anymore."
© 2008 Independent Florida Alligator via U-WIRE