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The U.S.-Latin America disconnect

The U.S.-Latin America disconnect

From the photographs of Hillary Clinton partying up at a Cartagena disco during last weekend’s Sixth Summit of the Americas, it appears she was the only U.S. official who enjoyed herself while in Colombia. (We’ll leave out the members of the president’s security detail who were sent home for allegedly consorting with prostitutes.)

Indeed, despite being commended for "listening politely," President Obama had to have been frustrated with being endlessly harangued by his counterparts over historical and ideological grievances that predated his birth. It was, as the president said, like entering a "time warp."

Rather than figuring out how to cooperate with our southern neighbors in meeting the challenges of the 21st century global economy, the president was instead forced to sit and listen as others complained about why Stalinist Cuba wasn’t invited to a summit of otherwise popularly elected governments or how come the United Kingdom won’t honor Argentina’s specious claim to the Falkland Islands after more than two centuries?

It’s a wonder nobody demanded that President Obama cede back to Mexico a huge chunk of the American Southwest.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of Latin American populism is nursing historical grudges; it’s easier than having to solve real problems. But, still, the disconnect between the agendas of the United States and our neighbors to the south continues to widen. And, in this, those administration officials tasked with managing the Latin America portfolio are not blameless.

Three years of U.S. neglect — combined with a period of economic prosperity built mostly on Chinese demand for agricultural commodities and raw materials — have convinced many governments in the region that cooperation with the United States is not as important as it used to be. An expression of that new-found attitude is talking about issues they want to talk about, and in which the United States has no interest discussing.

It is perfectly natural that Latin American governments are branching out and establishing new economic relationships or boosting trade amongst themselves. But spurning closer cooperation with the United States — whose economy still comprises almost seventy percent of regional GDP — is in no one’s long-term interest.

It may be that the region is enjoying good times economically, but Chinese demand isn’t always going to be there, and it is hardly a foundation on which to build lasting prosperity. Moreover, confronting the U.S. over historical grievances may boost some sort of elitist self-esteem, but it is hardly relevant to the majority of the region’s citizens who live on less than two dollars a day.

Enhancing long-term development is better met through closer regional cooperation in trade integration, promoting energy security, strengthening democratic institutions, and tackling drug corruption and violence. And, of course, it cannot just be a one-way street. The ground is shifting under U.S.-Latin America relations, with the days of demand and compliance a distant memory.

In an increasingly turbulent world, there is much to say for developing stronger relationships within our own hemisphere. By doing so, we will also necessarily crowd out those who would rather wallow in the past than look to a prosperous and mutually beneficial future.

With this most recent summit so dominated by issues no U.S. president can find any benefit in discussing, some have speculated that this may very well be the last such summit in which the U.S. will likely participate. That would be unfortunate. Better that the Sixth Summit of the Americas be remembered as the nadir of U.S.-Latin America relations, with the only way to go but up.