Is U.S. influence in Latin America on the wane? It depends how you look at it.
As President Obama travels to Mexico and Costa Rica, its likely the pundits will once again underscore what some perceive to be the eroding influence of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Some will point to the decline in foreign aid or the absence of an overarching policy with an inspiring moniker like Alliance for Progress or Enterprise Area of the Americas as evidence that the United States is failing to embrace the opportunities of a region that is more important to this country than ever.
The reality is a lot more complicated. Forty-two percent of all U.S. exports flow to the Western Hemisphere. In many ways, U.S. engagement in the Americas is more pervasive than ever, even if more diffused. That is in part because the peoples of the Western Hemisphere are not waiting for governments to choreograph their interactions.
A more-nuanced assessment inevitably will highlight the complex, multidimensional ties between the United States and the rest of the hemisphere. In fact, it may be that we need to change the way we think and talk about the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. We also need to resist the temptation to embrace overly reductive yardsticks for judging our standing in the hemisphere.
As Moises Naim notes in his recent book, The End of Power, there has been an important change in power distribution in the world away from states toward an expanding and increasingly mobile set of actors that are dramatically shaping the nature and scope of global relationships. In Latin America, many of the most substantive and dynamic forms of engagement are occurring in a web of cross-national relationships involving small and large companies, people-to-people contact through student exchanges and social media, travel and migration.
Trade and investment remain the most enduring and measurable dimensions of U.S. relations with the region. It is certainly the case that our economic interests alone would justify more U.S. attention to the region. Many observers who worry about declining U.S. influence in this area point to the rise of trade with China and the presence of European companies and investors.
While it is true that other countries are important to the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean, it is also still true that the United States is by far the largest and most important economic partner of the region and trade is growing even with those countries with which we do not have free trade agreements.
An area of immense importance to regional economies that we often overlook is the exponential growth in travel, tourism and migration. It is commonplace to note the enormous presence of foreign students in the United States but in 2011, according to the Institute of International Education, after Europe, Latin America was the second most popular destination for U.S. university students. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. tourists travel every year to Latin America and the Caribbean helping to support thousands of jobs.
From 2006-2011 U.S. non-government organizations, such as churches, think tanks and universities increased the number of partnerships with their regional cohorts by a factor of four. Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean from the United States totaled $64 billion in 2012. Particularly for the smaller economies of Central America and the Caribbean these flows can sometimes constitute more than 10 percent of gross domestic product.
Finally, one should not underestimate the resiliency of U.S. soft power in the region. The power of national reputation, popular culture,values and institutions continues to contribute to U.S. influence in ways that are difficult to measure and impossible to quantify. Example: Despite 14 years of strident anti-American rhetoric during the Chávez government, tens of thousand of Venezuelans apply for U.S. nonimmigrant visas every year, including many thousands of Chávez loyalists.
Does this mean we can feel comfortable relegating U.S. relations with the hemisphere to the second or third tier of our international concerns? Certainly not. We have real and proliferating interests in the region. As the president and his team head to Mexico and Costa Rica, it is important to recognize the importance of our ties to the region.
We have many individual national partners in the Americas. We dont need a new template for relations with the hemisphere as a whole or another grand U.S.-Latin America strategy. A greater commitment to work more intensely with the individual countries on the issues most relevant to them would be appropriate. The United States still has the economic and cultural heft in the region to play a fundamental role and to advance its own interests.
Patrick Duddy served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 until 2010 and is currently visiting senior lecturer at Duke University. Frank O. Mora is incoming director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University, and former deputy assistant secretary of Defense, Western Hemisphere (2009-2013).