Here's something that should be sounding alarm bells in Washington: Latin American countries — which have long been big buyers of U.S. goods — are increasingly making a larger chunk of their purchases from other parts of the world.
While U.S. exports to the region are growing, in some cases significantly, their percentage of Latin America's overall imports is shrinking. To put it in economists' jargon, U.S. exports are losing market share in Latin America.
Consider the latest figures from the World Trade Atlas, which lists official figures submitted by each country:
In Mexico, despite a huge increase since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, imports of U.S. goods dropped from 73 percent of total imports in 2000 to 48 percent in 2009.
In Brazil, imports of U.S. products fell from 23 percent of total foreign purchases in 2000 to 16 percent in 2009.
In Colombia, the share of U.S. imports dropped from 34 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2009.
In Argentina, it fell from 19 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2009.
In Chile, it dropped from 20 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2009.
In Peru, from 23 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2009.
Part of the decline is because Latin American countries are buying increasingly more goods from each other and from China, trade officials say. Many Latin American countries have signed free trade deals with one another, and China's cheap currency helps make their exports very affordable in the region.
According to the World Trade Atlas figures, Mexico's imports from China went up from less than 2 percent of Mexico's total imports a decade ago to 14 percent today, while Brazil's imports from China rose from 2 percent to 12 percent, Argentina's from 5 percent to 12 percent, Chile's from 6 percent to 13 percent and Peru's from 4 percent to 15 percent over the same period.
At first sight, these figures don't bode well for President Barack Obama's vow to double U.S. exports over the next five years. The Western Hemisphere, including Canada, amounts to 42 percent of U.S. exports, and the region's rapid economic growth should make it a prime target for selling U.S. goods.
But Obama administration officials note that the picture is much brighter for the United States than these figures suggest.
First, U.S. exports to the region are rising fast. Over the past decade, U.S. exports to South America have risen by 94 percent in dollar terms, while U.S. exports to Central America have risen by 76 percent, and U.S. exports to Mexico by 16 percent, they say.
Second, U.S. exports don't compete with China's, they say. While the United States sells high technology goods such as aircraft, and medical equipment to the region, China sells mostly apparel and consumer electronics.
Third, when developing countries grow, they create bigger middle classes that typically increase imports of China-made consumer goods such as TV sets and clothing. The pie of Latin America's economy is growing and everybody is benefiting, they say.
U.S. Under-Secretary of Commerce Francisco Sanchez told me that "we are doing very well in those sectors where we have historically done well" in Latin America.
"We haven't lost market share in those products which we are selling there. Our exports to Latin America are growing faster than our exports to other parts of the world."
And that's likely to continue, Sanchez said. The Obama administration is stepping up trade missions to Latin America and other parts of the world, and increasing its assistance to U.S. exporters, he added.
My opinion: If the Obama administration wants to double U.S. goods abroad, it will have to open new U.S. markets. So far, it hasn't done much on that front.
It has yet to get Congress to approve the pending free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea and to seek new trade pacts with other countries. Perhaps that should become a top administration priority after November's mid-term elections, when there are fewer political pressures and Washington is once again forced to deal with reality.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.