In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: What Obama didn’t say about Latin America

I’ve read with great attention President Barack Obama’s article in The Miami Herald earlier this week on how to improve U.S. relations with Latin America. It was pretty disappointing.

The article, headlined “Improving our Partnership” and published after Obama’s return from a trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, says that “this is a moment of great promise for our hemisphere” and is full of feel-good talk about the future of the Americas.

But, sadly, it showed the absence of any U.S. plans to drastically expand trade ties with Latin America — like the Obama administration has done with Asia and Europe — or any sign that, in his second term, Obama will pay greater attention to this hemisphere.

Before we get into what Obama should do, let’s take a quick look at the facts. In his article, Obama stated that about 40 percent of U.S. exports are currently going to Latin America, and that these exports are growing at a faster pace than U.S. shipments to the rest of the world.

Also, Obama celebrated that the U.S. Congress is finally close to approving comprehensive immigration reform. While that’s a U.S. domestic issue, it would have a positive economic impact on Mexico and Central America, since millions of newly legalized immigrants would be able to visit their native countries, and would most likely be sending more money to their families back home.

But here are some of the facts that Obama failed to mention in his article:

• U.S. total trade with Latin America has actually fallen as a percentage of total U.S. trade over the past decade. While 39 percent of overall U.S. trade was with the Western Hemisphere in 2000, that percentage fell to 38 percent in 2012, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data.

•  Despite Obama’s May 23, 2008, campaign promise to launch “a new alliance of the Americas,” he has not started any major hemispheric free trade initiative. By comparison, every recent U.S. president had started — or at least tried to start — a hemisphere-wide trade deal.

• Obama has launched the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks with mostly Asian countries, and a similar Trans-Atlantic Partnership free trade negotiation with the 27-member European Union, but has not announced any plans for a Trans-American Partnership.

Granted, he has helped ratify free trade deals with Colombia and Panama, which had been signed by his predecessor. And, sure, the Trans-Pacific Partnership plan includes a few Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Peru and Chile, but they are a minority within the proposed new bloc.

• In his May 2 trip to Mexico, Obama failed to meet Mexico’s request to be included in the U.S.-proposed Trans-Atlantic partnership free trade talks with the European Union. The Mexican governments had asked that Mexico and Canada be included in the Trans-Atlantic Partnership plan, so that the proposed deal could become a North American-European Union deal. But the White House response was, not yet.

• Despite Obama’s 2011 announcement of a plan to increase to 100,000 the number of Latin American students in U.S. colleges, and to 100,000 the number of U.S. students in Latin American universities — his most ambitious initiative for the region — progress on the project has been slow.

The plan calls for significant private sector funding, but Obama has invested little time, or political capital, in it. Fund-raising has been left in charge of the State Department, whose boss — Secretary of State John Kerry — has shown scant interest in Latin America.

Kerry did not travel with Obama to Mexico and Costa Rica last week, and his April 18 remark at a congressional hearing about Latin America being “our backyard” had the rare effect of antagonizing friends and foes alike in the region.

My opinion: As regular readers of this column know well, I much prefer Obama over his Republican critics on most issues. But I find it unfortunate that, as Obama’s recent trade initiatives with Asia and Europe show, he looks East and West, but very little toward the South. Neither he, nor Kerry, nor any Cabinet-level official is focused on the region.

Perhaps it’s too late to expect any changes. But the least Obama could do is get personally involved in the projects he has already launched. For instance, he should pick up the phone and ask CEO’s of top multinationals to chip in funds for his plan to raise student exchanges with Latin America to 100,000 in both directions. If Obama doesn’t get personally involved, not even that will happen.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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