We need a strategic pivot to Latin America

We need a strategic pivot to Latin America

By Ambassador Roger F. Noriega and José R. Cárdenas

Last week, ahead of President Obama’s meeting with the Business Roundtable, the Roundtable and the U.S. Council for International Business released a report saying that, "the success of American companies, and of the U.S. workers they employ, increasingly hinges on their success as globally engaged companies."

Indeed, there is some optimism in Washington that President Obama, free from political constraints in his second term (i.e., Big Labor opposition to free trade), can implement a robust international trade agenda as a sure-fire way to create new jobs at home, markets for U.S. goods and services, and investment opportunities abroad.  Much of that talk is focused on action regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement with Europe.

We have just co-authored a paper for the American Enterprise Institute — "An action plan for US policy in the Americas" — the essence of which can be distilled down to the following: Mr. President, stop ignoring Latin America!

If the President’s objective is to use trade to help jump-start the U.S. economy and create more jobs here at home, then Latin America has to be part of the equation.  That’s because when you look beyond the rogue behavior of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his populist ilk, clearly the Western Hemisphere is home to some of the most dynamic markets in the world.

Since 2003, an estimated 73 million Latin Americans have risen out of poverty. Moreover, between then and 2010, the average Latin American income increased by more than 30 percent, meaning that today nearly one-third of the region’s nearly 570 million population is considered middle class. And in just the next five years, regional economies are projected to expand by one-third.

Given the Americas’ close historical, cultural, familial, and geographic ties, linked by common values and mutual interests, what that means for U.S. businesses is millions of new consumers with an ingrained affinity for U.S. goods and services. 

Greater economic integration will also create momentum to deal with other challenges in the region, from security issues to modernizing immigration policy — not to mention rendering obsolete once and for all the retrograde populist agendas of some who prefer looking to the past rather than the future.

It’s time that U.S. policymakers dispensed once and for all with Old Think when it comes to Latin America: that is, what is it the U.S. can do for the region.  Today, it is what we can do together to benefit all the peoples of the hemisphere and boost our own recovery and competitiveness. If President Obama is to pursue an aggressive trade agenda in his second term, the incentives are powerful for a fundamental reassessment of relations right here in our own hemisphere.