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Jaime Aleman, Panama’s ambassador to the United States, presented his credentials to President Obama in November.

Deepening Savannah’s harbor is a «vital project» to ensure that the port remains competitive once the Panama Canal expansion project is complete, Panama’s ambassador to the U.S., Jaime Aleman, told GlobalAtlanta.

«You need to do it,» Mr. Aleman said in an interview at the Metro Atlanta Chamber in downtown Atlanta, where he was the keynote speaker at a Panama-U.S. trade conference.

A more than $5 billion expansion of the canal began last year and is scheduled to be completed by 2014. It will allow much larger ships, called post-panamax vessels, to traverse the canal. These ships can haul up to three times more containers than a conventional vessel.

Once the larger ships can navigate the Panama Canal, there will be a shift of traffic away from West Coast ports such as Long Beach, Calif., the ambassador said.

«Most of the larger ships that are now being built, instead of going to Long Beach and then carrying their products across the United States by rail or by highway, will now transit the canal and come directly to the ports here,» Mr. Aleman said. «So that will obviously increase the employment and the income for the ports.»

In order to accommodate the larger ships when they are fully loaded, the Savannah harbor will have to be deepened to 48 feet, which would cost about $600 million. Before the project can begin, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must sign off on a plan, which by federal law must include measures to mitigate environmental impact of the deepening. Georgia would then approach Congress for funding. The Corps of Engineers is expected to decide by April 2011.

The Georgia General Assembly this year authorized $68 million in bonds for the deepening.

Mr. Aleman noted that ports across the U.S., Savannah’s competition, are increasingly focusing on the Panama canal expansion.

«One of the surprises for me as ambassador has been the level of interest that exists in the different ports in the United States regarding the expansion of the canal and the improvements these ports have to make in their own facilities in order to remain competitive,» he said.

Mr. Aleman has recently visited or been invited to ports in Tampa, Fla., Miami, Mobile, Ala., and Corpus Christi, Texas.

«Everybody is very much aware of what is going on and everybody is preparing themselves for that,» said Mr. Aleman.

The ambassador, part of a delegation of Panamanians in Atlanta for a conference sponsored by the U.S.-Panama Business Council, also pushed for approval of a free trade agreement between his country and the U.S.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama expressed support for pending free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea. But the U.S. Congress has yet to approve the agreements.

«I think it’s internal politics in the U.S.,» Mr. Aleman said of the holdup. «We are hopeful that reason will prevail.»

U.S. companies have the most to lose if the free trade agreement is not enacted, said Mr. Aleman.

«We already export all of our products to the U.S. duty free anyway under the Caribbean Basin Initiative,» legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress that dates to 1983, the ambassador said. «So the big losers are the U.S. companies exporting to Panama who are having to pay tariffs.»

He noted that U.S. companies sell much more to Panama than Panamanian companies sell to the U.S.

«The United States has a $4.3 billion trade surplus with Panama,» he said. «It’s the eighth-largest trade surplus that the U.S. has with any country.»

Meanwhile, Panama is negotiating free trade agreements with other countries across the globe.

«We are on the verge of finalizing negotiations with the European Union,» he said. «We have already entered into trade agreements with Canada and Chile and all of the Central American countries. »

Panama presents potentially lucrative opportunities for U.S. companies, Mr. Aleman said, citing mining as one emerging field. The country has recently begun to develop copper and gold mines, he said.

Wind and solar energy and hydroelectric power are also growth industries, he added.

He cited Georgia’s universities as another export to his country, with the Georgia Institute of Technology in the final stages of developing a logistics center there.

There are daily direct flights between Atlanta and Panama and Panamanians love to watch the Atlanta Braves, he said, citing the growing connections between Georgia and his country.

«There’s a whole array of activities and areas for our cooperation and growth,» said the ambassador. «The most important and difficult thing to do is open the network. Once you have opened up the road, which we seemed to have done, then it’s just a matter of holding events like this one; Our people come up here and your people come down there.»