In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. should avoid “Latin America fatigue”

President Barack Obama’s state-of-the-world speech before the United Nations General Assembly last week did not mention any Latin American country, and virtually omitted the region as a whole. It was a major mistake, but it shouldn’t surprise us.

Despite its flip-flops and occasional blunders, Obama’s foreign policy has been a great improvement over former President George W. Bush’s arrogant diplomacy but it won’t win any prize for its interest or commitment to Latin America.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may just as well change his title to U.S. Secretary of the Middle East, because that’s where he’s virtually living these days. Kerry’s first seven foreign trips after taking office on Feb. 1 were to Europe and the Middle East, and only two of his 14 trips abroad so far have been to Latin America, according to the U.S. State Department’s website.

(Cautionary note: if by some miracle Kerry pulls off a lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, I’ll eat my words and pray that nobody remembers these lines.)

Obama’s Tuesday speech at the U.N. General Assembly was entirely devoted to the Middle East and North Africa. He only mentioned Latin America tangentially when he said that “from Africa to the Americas” democracies have proven to be more successful than dictatorships, and that “the same will hold true for the Arab world.”

By contrast, several of Obama’s predecessors often referred to their grand plans for the region during their U.N. speeches. But Obama, unlike former Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, has not proposed regional trade or investment plans with Latin America.

The Obama administration has launched negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership with mostly Asian countries, and a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with European countries, but no Trans-American Partnership with Latin America. Mexico asked Obama to be part of the Trans-Atlantic trade deal, but the U.S. answer has been somewhere between “no” and “later.”

Obama’s most ambitious regional initiative has been the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program to increase college student exchanges to and from Latin America. It’s a great program, but it would be better if it were part of a bigger Trans-American economic agreement.

Granted, Obama has made six trips to the region, and he recently asked a key figure — Vice President Joe Biden — to be his point man for U.S.-Latin American relations.

And it’s also true that Obama has had to deal with a particularly pitiful cast of characters in Latin America.

Authoritarian populist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others, have taken to new levels the old gimmick of blaming the United States for their economic shortcomings, even if many of them have enjoyed — and wasted — the biggest economic bonanza in recent memories.

Hardly a week goes by in which Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, doesn’t blame the United States for his country’s economic collapse, or of some outlandish plot to kill him, without providing any evidence.

As a result of these leaders’ notoriety, many in the U.S. Congress see Latin America as a region led by clowns in funny shirts. Brazil’s tensions with Washington over the U.S. electronic spying fiasco, and new projections that Latin America’s economic growth will slow down after a decade of rapid expansion, are not helping generate big hopes for U.S. ties with the region.

While U.S. officials continue to say publicly that Latin America is the land of the future, many show a growing case of “Latin American fatigue.”

My opinion: Now is not the time for the U.S. to ignore Latin America. On the contrary, the decade of commodity-based authoritarian populism will soon come to an end — populism only works when there’s money to give away — and a new generation of more responsible Latin American leaders are preparing themselves to be voted into office.

Latin America — starting with the Pacific Alliance bloc made up of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile — should be a top U.S. priority. The United States already exports $400 billion a year to Latin America — three times more than to China, and almost 10 times more than to Germany. That figure is likely to grow, because — even while growing slower — Latin America’s economy is projected to expand at 3 percent annual rates in coming years.

Geography is the mother of history, and there is no region in the world that will have a greater impact on U.S. daily life in terms of immigration, the environment, trade, energy or culture than Latin America. The region deserved more than a one-word tangential reference in Obama’s U.N. speech.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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