São Paulo, Brazil -- With the sluggish U.S. economic recovery and nagging debt, American taxpayers probably aren’t in the mood to be helping others around the world — even their nearest neighbors.
But as Vice President Joe Biden embarks on a three-nation Latin American tour Sunday, beginning in Colombia, foreign relations observers say the Obama administration will have to come up with more than just talk if the U.S. hopes to recapture some of its shine in a hemisphere that’s increasingly being courted by other global powers.
“It’s going to require specific actions. If nothing happens after that, people will talk about opportunities missed,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society. “There is a sense that if we don’t step up our game in the Western Hemisphere, others will take advantage.”
In the three stops on Biden’s tour — Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil — leaders are expected to raise issues over trade, security, economic growth and energy.
The follow-up for discussions in all three nations are important, said Farnsworth, because Biden’s visit roughly coincides with a Latin American tour by the People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping. Xi is scheduled to pay a three-day state visit to Trinidad and Tobago just days after Biden meets Tuesday with members of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in the energy-rich nation.
Last week, senior administration officials downplayed suggestions that the Chinese leader’s visit and the possible announcement of new investments by the Asian powerhouse might undercut perceptions about the United States’ commitment to Latin America and the Caribbean.
“We don’t really see ourselves as being in competition with any particular actor in the Americas,” said a senior administration official. “We’re very pleased with the type of trade that we engage in throughout the Americas, a very diversified… type of trade. It’s a trade that emphasizes the value-added products from many countries throughout the region.”
The trip gets underway in earnest on Monday when Biden is scheduled to meet with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota. The vice president will “highlight the remarkable progress on security” in Colombia, which has been plagued by drug trafficking and guerrilla warfare, and Santos’ efforts to bring an end to conflict in the Americas, a senior administration official said.
But Farnsworth warned that Colombians are increasingly concerned about the reduction in U.S. assistance to their country.
After leaving Colombia, Biden will travel to Trinidad where Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has invited leaders of the 15-member Caricom bloc.
Anthony Bryan, a senior fellow at the Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies, said he expects Persad-Bissessar to discuss pressures for the U.S. to begin exporting natural gas. Trinidad was once a major supplier of natural gas to the U.S.
During the meeting with Caricom leaders, the U.S. also is expected to sign a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. The administration has asked for the Dominican Republic to be a part of the Tuesday meeting in Trinidad, and the agreement is aimed at galvanizing trade and investment activities within the Caribbean and between the region and the U.S., its biggest trading partner.
On Wednesday Biden is expected to visit an installation of Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil is trying to develop deepwater oil and gas fields, known as the “pre-salt” finds that potentially have huge reserves but are located in very deep water.
“The Brazilian government is trying to signal globally that they are very interested in securing investment in the whole process, to find the oil, extract it and then trade it,” said Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro’s Fundação Getúlio Vargas.
Spektor noted that Brazil has neither the funding nor the capacity to explore the pre-salt fields alone and is in search of partners.
International observers in Brazil also see the Biden visit as paving the way for a state visit, possibly in October, by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Though Rousseff has visited Washington before, it would be the first official state visit by a Brazilian head of state to the United States in almost two decades, they note.
From a geo-political viewpoint, some believe that Brazil is the most important stop on Biden’s tour. He is scheduled to spend three days in the South American nation, discussing not just bilateral matters but multilateral concerns as well.
“Brazil has found its voice internationally,” Farnsworth said. “We have to have a better understanding of how we can work together.”
This will be Biden’s fourth visit to Latin America since becoming vice president, and it builds on President Obama’s recent visit to Mexico and Costa Rica. Administration officials say it’s the “latest demonstration of the United States’ commitment to reinforcing our partnerships in the Americas.”
That partnership, however, hasn’t always been smooth. Caribbean leaders often complain about being neglected and taken for granted by the United States. And last month after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry angered a number of people by referring to Latin America as “our backyard,” Bolivia’s President Evo Morales expelled USAID, the U.S. development agency, from his nation in retaliation.
Still, the visit offers huge opportunities for leaders to discuss issues of mutual interest.
Anton Edmunds, a Caribbean business consultant, said absent a meeting with Obama himself, Biden is perhaps best positioned to plead the region’s case.
“If there is anybody who can carry some water for the Caribbean, it may well be the vice president,” Edmunds said, noting Biden’s long years as a U.S. senator.
McClatchy White House Correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington, D.C. Charles reported from Miami and Barnes from São Paulo.