US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Latin America to continue fighting poverty and avoid the temptation of closing off trade. Rice said on Wednesday, December 10, that countries should not "repeat the mistakes of the Great Depression when nations deepened that crisis by turning inward."
In her last scheduled trip to the region as Secretary of State, Rice is meeting with foreign, trade and commerce ministers in the first session of an initiative aimed at strengthening trade. According to US State Department officials the transition team of President elect Barack Obama described the event as "important."
The one-day conference in Panama, mostly of nations that already have free trade agreements with the US, focused partly on looking for ways that the benefits of existing free-trade agreements can be more broadly spread across societies.
The meeting includes officials from Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay and Peru.
Panamanian President Martin Torrijos said officials need to foster worker training and protection of the environment as they work toward "better days for our countries, for our peoples" and come up with ways to make sure trade does not "result in profits for only a few" who in some cases abuse the system.
The effort being discussed Wednesday was launched in September to link trade and development and to ensure that the benefits of trade and economic growth reach the poorest and most vulnerable, said Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs who is in Panama with Ms Rice.
He said that although the amount of trade countries do could be affected by difficult economic times, the agreements the nations have signed are solid.
"Our trading relationships with our 12 free-trade partners – that's real and that's not going to change," Shannon said, adding that he didn't foresee any countries attempting to renege on their pacts.
Shannon said officials hope the new initiative discussed Wednesday – called Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas – will become a forum at which nations can talk about other issues important to trade, such as health, education, the environment and labor practices.
US State Department officials have been working closely with President elect Obama's transition team and have highlighted the initiative being discussed in Panama this week as "important", said Daniel Sullivan, assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs. He said that working for free trade has "a very strong bipartisan tradition in Washington".