Latin America no longer anyone’s ‘backyard’



With President Obama’s sixth trip to Latin America taking place this week from Thursday to Saturday, it is time to recognize that traditional measuring sticks for relations with our closest neighbors no longer work.

Instead of asking what the United States is doing for the Americas, it is time to appreciate how the United States is leveraging ties to and working with the Americas to advance our interests.

Take, for example, the most important “deliverable” of this trip to Mexico and Costa Rica — the President’s push for comprehensive immigration reform. Even though it will neither be announced on this trip, nor be about U.S. policy toward Mexico or Central America, the push for immigration reform speaks directly to the ties that bind the Americas.

Although it should be enacted on its domestic merits, comprehensive immigration reform — in all its aspects: border security, temporary worker programs, and path to citizenship — has far-reaching implications for Mexico and Central America. If enacted, it will do more to enhance U.S. relations with our neighbors throughout the Americas than could any other single act.

Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population hails from Mexico and Central America with another 10 percent from the Caribbean and South America. The world’s third largest Hispanic population and economy are the U.S. Hispanic community — trailing only Brazil and Mexico. The United States, by far the largest trade partner for each of the countries with whose leaders the president will meet on this trip, generates anywhere from 2 to 17 percent of each country’s GDP through remittances.

Our ties to the rest of the Americas, however, are to a region that is neither anyone’s “backyard” nor a world apart.

The region’s trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific trade and political ties have proliferated in the past decade. Multilatinas — Americas-based corporations — have become significant global players. Mexican and Central American direct investment in the United States, for example, now tops $15 billion, exceeding similar investment from Russia, China, and India combined.

In light of these trends, President Obama has embraced the need for the United States to compete in the Americas while expanding global cooperation with the Americas. Improving and completing the Colombia and Panama FTAs, deepening economic ties with Brazil, and enhancing border and regulatory cooperation with Mexico and Canada, for example, have strengthened ties to key economic partners and increased our global competitiveness.

This trip will continue the president’s agenda as he meets with leaders of eight of our 12 Pacific-facing neighbors in the Americas. These countries play an important role in rebalancing U.S. foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific. Having like-minded partners such as Mexico, Canada, Chile, and Peru as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations advances U.S. interests. Incorporating other Pacific-facing neighbors — like Costa Rica and Colombia — which value rules-based, open trade and are clamoring to join the TPP could update and harmonize a patchwork of trade agreements in the Americas that account for nearly a quarter of all U.S. global trade.

Although crime and violence pose serious challenges and will undoubtedly garner attention during this trip, they are far from the sole issues on the agenda with either Mexico or Central America. Greater energy, commercial, and education cooperation are centerpieces of the U.S. agenda in the Americas as our increasingly connected and capable neighbors no longer measure the strength of relations by totaling up U.S. security assistance.

Instead, our neighbors desire dynamic partnerships built upon the more than $1 trillion in U.S. trade with and investment in the Americas. Although room remains for neighbors to step up and more effectively share responsibility, countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Chile are engaged in trilateral cooperation with the United States and other nations in the region to tackle common challenges and advance shared interests.

This shift to partnership together with an appreciation of the United States’ place in the Americas is the key to understanding how the president’s trip to Mexico and Central America advances modern U.S.-Latin American relations.

Dan Restrepo, who was special assistant to the president and advised both of President Obama’s campaigns on Latin America policy, is an international strategic consultant.

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