President Obama’s recent claim that he has started “a new chapter of engagement” with Latin America has become a new mantra of his administration, but it may be more rooted in wishful thinking than reality.
That’s the first thing that crossed my mind after interviewing U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker last week, when she stopped in Miami to make a speech in which she called this a “historic moment for the Americas” and referred to “the Obama administration’s renewed focus on the Americas.”
Pritzker quoted from a recent Obama speech saying that “better relations between the United States and Cuba will create new opportunities for cooperation across our region.” She added that ongoing U.S. talks with 11 Pacific Rim countries – including Japan, Australia, Mexico, Peru and Chile – to sign a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would create the world’s biggest free trade area, and would greatly benefit Latin America.
She also said that “from Guadalajara to Santiago to Sao Paulo, countries across the region, with some exceptions, are gravitating toward a more pro-market, pro-investment democratic vision for their future.”
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When we sat down for an interview, I asked her whether the Obama administration is overselling this idea of a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations.
First, I can’t recall a U.S. administration in recent history that has failed to proclaim a “new chapter” in U.S.-Latin American ties.
What’s more, the Obama administration is the first in several decades that hasn’t proposed a grand plan for improving U.S. economic ties with the entire region. Obama is negotiating the TPP but has not proposed a similar Trans-American agreement.
Second, the Obama administration has not spent much time nor energy on Latin America over the past six years.
Third, the U.S. has lost significant market share to China in Latin America over the past decade. China has already become the No. 1 trade partner of Brazil and Chile, and the No. 2 trade partner of Argentina, Peru and Uruguay, according to U.N. data.
“Our engagement with Latin America is broader and deeper than it has ever been,” Pritzker told me. She said that 11 of the 21 U.S. free-trade agreements across the world are with Latin American countries, and that “our trade to Latin America is growing dramatically.”
Furthermore, the TPP – if it’s approved – will allow Mexico, Chile and Peru to participate in co-manufacturing and supply chains that will benefit from increased U.S.-Asian trade, she said. And because it’s an “open architecture” agreement, other Latin American countries, such as Brazil or Argentina, could join it if they adhere to TPP’s labor, environmental and intellectual property standards, she said.
As for whether Latin America is becoming more democratic, she said that “there is a yearning for engagement with the United States in terms of our policies … in several countries around the hemisphere.”
My opinion: The recent drop in commodity prices is beginning to change the political winds in Latin America after more than a decade of radical populism fueled by oil and grain export bonanzas. But we’re still far from the “new chapter” in U.S.-Latin American relations.
If anything, there is a huge opportunity for the United States to recover lost ground in the region, which Obama may be recognizing now. To turn that opportunity into reality, however, he will need to pay much more attention to the region.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.