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U.S. ignores Latin America at its own peril

In Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, politicians rail against the United States as an arrogant, greedy, uncaring bully.

‘Anti-U.S. politicians are filling a political vacuum in Latin America that the U.S. itself has created’, Alejandro Chafuen writes.

Read more by Alejandro Chafuen

Jan 31, 2007 3:00 AM (8 days ago)

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SAN FRANCISCO – Anti-American populism is in vogue again in Latin America. And we may have ourselves to blame.

In Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, politicians rail against the United States as an arrogant, greedy, uncaring bully.

What has the United States done to provoke this? The answer: It’s not so much what we’ve done, but what we haven’t done. We haven’t paid serious attention to Latin America, creating a political vacuum that anti-U.S. politicians such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez are happy to fill.

Consider President Bush’s recent State of the Union address. What did he say about U.S. relations with our southern neighbors? With the exception of a single passing reference to Cuba, he said nothing.

The new 110th Congress could help change this. By approving the free-trade agreements (FTA) the administration signed last year with Colombia and Peru, Congress could shore up America’s sagging stature in the hemisphere. If Congress doesn’t act swiftly and wisely, however, our southern neighbors might conclude that the United States thinks only of itself.

When George W. Bush assumed the presidency, most observers expected him to put greater emphasis on Latin America and the Caribbean. These expectations, fueled by the close ties he built with Mexico as Texas governor, were dealt a staggering blow by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Virtually overnight, Latin America was put on the back burner, while Afghanistan, Iraq and Islamic terrorism became the focus of U.S. foreign policy.

In the economic sphere, the story is similar: Latin America has become an afterthought. Globalization in general and outsourcing in particular are perceived as the big challenges (and threats) facing America, so China and India have taken the spotlight. This ignores the fact that Latin America’s economies produce roughly twice as much as China’s, with only half of China’s population — and that Latin America buys far more U.S. exports than China and the market is growing. Between 1992 and 2003, U.S. merchandise trade with Latin America increased 154 percent, compared to 88 percent for all of Asia.

While approval of the pending agreements would help boost our sagging image, there are other compelling reasons for Congress to act as well.

Congress needs to think of the proposed FTAs with Colombia and Peru as partnership contracts built on mutual respect and the rule of law. Creating such a framework would help promote mutually beneficial economic cooperation and trade; demonstrate America’s interest in our neighbors’ well-being; advance democratic institutions and the rule of law, and help undermine corruption and the rise of more anti-American political figures.

We can see all of the above in Mexico, one of our two North American Free Trade Agreement partners and the Latin country that trades the most with the United States (more than $120 billion in 2005).

Mexico’s occasionally troubled history was marred, until recently, by single-party rule, rampant corruption, and episodic periods of anti-Americanism. The 1992 NAFTA agreement helped change this. By all reasonable measures, Mexico today is more democratic and more transparent in its financial dealings than it was prior to NAFTA. According to the Academy of Humanistic Research (Academía de Investigación Humanística A.C.), a nonpartisan Mexican “civil association,” or think tank, every federal government ministry in Mexico now has an accountability officer charged with enforcing ethical standards and improving the efficiency and accountability of the agency. In addition, while we have not seen an end to anti-Americanism, the country’s voters last year rejected the anti-American candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in his bid for the presidency.

Such positive changes also are evident in Chile, which signed a FTA with the United States in 2004. In addition to experiencing economic growth rates of 6 percent or more in recent years, Chile has moved forward with political and legal reforms that place it well ahead of most other Latin nations, according to the World Bank.

Free trade agreements are one of the few tools the United States has to counter the anti-democratic, anti-American trends in Latin America. Congress needs to realize this and approve the proposed Colombia and Peru FTAs as soon as possible.

Alejandro Chafuen is president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation (www.atlasusa.org), Arlington, Va.