WASHINGTON Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will discuss trade this week with other nations of the Western Hemisphere, U.S. officials said on Monday, and expressed hope that support for free trade would continue under a more skeptical President Barack Obama.
Rice travels to Panama City on Tuesday for the gathering of foreign and commerce ministers from 11 other countries that have negotiated free-trade deals with the United States.
Lowering trade barriers to trade has been a signature policy of the Bush administration, but is often blamed by critics for job losses at home. With Washington focused on the troubled U.S. economy, it is unclear what role trade deals will play in the future.
Obama, who takes office January 20, opposes the free-trade pact the U.S. negotiated with Colombia that still must be approved by Congress before going into force. His attitude toward a similar deal with Panama is uncertain.
He also has said he favors renegotiating parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters the network of U.S. trading partners stretching from Canada to Chile would provide a "powerful tool" for Obama, and "lay the groundwork for a much larger Asian-American free-trade area."
Wednesday's one-day meeting in Panama City will be attended by ministers from Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru and the United States. It will be hosted by Panamanian President Martin Torrijos.
Two countries that do not have free-trade agreements with Washington -- Uruguay and Brazil -- have also been invited, Shannon said.
Uruguay has been very interested in negotiating a free-trade pact with the United States. A proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas collapsed several years ago in part because of differences between Brazil and the United State over what should be included.
But Brazil is the biggest market in South America, so U.S. business would be interested in a deal if officials could get Brazil to agree.
Rice's trip to Panama City comes just as a Russian military vessel has docked at a former U.S. base in Panama, after going through the Panama Canal. Russia wants to boost its influence in the region amid growing tensions with the United States.
Shannon rejected any suggestion that Washington was upset by the ship's presence.
(Editing by David Storey)