Obama administration emphasizes trade ahead of Summit of the Americas

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    From Left to right, Ron Kirk, Karen Mills and Michael Camunez during their participation in the White House Conference on Connecting the Americas.

    The White House is eager to show how it is working to fortify relations with Latin American countries, particularly through trade.

    On Thursday, the White House Conference on Connecting the Americas took place as a primer ahead of President Barack Obama’s participation in the sixth Summit of the Americas. The conference came one day before Obama was set to leave for Cartagena, Colombia, where the summit is set to take place this weekend. He will make the trip with a  delegation that includes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who delivered the conference’s closing remarks.

    “Our global partnerships will be crucial to our success in the hemisphere,” Clinton told the packed auditorium where the conference took place.

    It was good way to sum up the event, which mainly focused on the economic aspects of the United States’ relationship with Latin America. Clinton’s remarks, delivered soon after the room received her with a standing ovation, emphasized the need to facilitate trade.

    “High quality trade means competitiveness for our companies,” she said.

    Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, opened the conference, along with Secretary of Commerce John Bryson and Dan Restrepo, the White House’s Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs. The three set the tone for the conference by focusing on commerce and the economy, and how the United States can strengthen its bonds with neighboring countries, beyond the already important relationship it has with Mexico.

    Related story: Latin American leaders seek alternatives to failed ‘War on Drugs’

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, delivering the conference’s closing remarks.The conference was not entirely open to the press, but the portions that were open dedicated little time to topics such as drug trafficking, opting to focus on small business development.

    The morning activities included a panel discussion comprised of Michael Camuñez, the Department of Commerce’s assistant secretary for market access and compliance; U.S. Small Business Administrator Karen Mills; and Amb. Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative. The panel explored the many changes since the first Summit of the Americas took place in 1994.

    The relationship with Mexico, for example, is about much more than drug trafficking and illegal immigration, said Camuñez. He said that it involves more than $400 billion in economic trade.

    It’s a chance for the White House to emphasize its commitment to increasing US leadership and improving lives in Latin American countries, and to address the opportunities and challenges that lie there.

    “Of American businesses who export, 95 percent are considered small businesses,” Kirk said to an audience that included many small business owners.

    He mentioned that one of Obama’s goals when he took office was to double exports in five years, and they are on track to accomplish that.

    According to Mills, $1.4 billion in loans went to Hispanic small businesses, which she said is the fastest growing small business sector.

    The panel said that a way to strengthen bonds between countries is through trade. According to the officials, in the United States, 1 in 100 small businesses export. They said this is a huge contrast to the United Kingdom, where 1 in 5 small businesses export.

    “If we are going to compete with other nations, we need to engage with foreign markets,” Camuñez said, adding that Latin America is a critical market.

    Nevertheless, Canada is not to be forgotten. John Negroponte, chairman of the Council of the Americas, was there to introduce the secretary of state, and emphasized that Canada is a great ally.

    “The United States has no better friend than Canada,” he said, adding that the Canadian government not only has helped the American government in times of need, but it has also a long history of helping Caribbean countries.

    According to Kirk, Canada and Mexico are the United States’ biggest trade partners, with about $1.5 billion in trade every day.

    Back in October, Obama signed free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama. The panel said that when these trade agreements go into effect, import duties into Panama and Colombia will decrease dramatically.

    Restrepo stressed the fact that this presidential trip is a testament to U.S. commitment to Colombia, saying that this is the first time an American president has an overnight stay in that South American country. Obama is set to stay for two nights. In addition, he will become the president to have traveled most to the region — this is his fourth trip to South America.

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