Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's peace-through-strength foreign policy would most likely be a throwback to President George W. Bush's cowboy diplomacy, but we have to give him credit for one thing: he is focusing on Latin America as a land of opportunities.
During the debate on foreign policy, which turned out to be a debate almost entirely focused on the Middle East, Romney was the only one to mention Latin America. And, most important, he did it in a positive light, not falling into Washington’s usual habit of linking the region exclusively to drugs, crime or illegal immigration.
Romney said that, if elected, he would increase U.S. trade worldwide, “particularly in Latin America.” He added that there are “opportunities for us in Latin America we have just not taken advantage of fully,” and that “We’re all focused on China. Latin America is a huge opportunity for us.” President Obama, in his response, switched to other issues.
Granted, Romney may have raised the Latin America trade issue because he desperately needs to improve his dismal standing among Latino voters, who overwhelmingly resented his anti-immigration rhetoric during the primaries, which bordered on Latino-bashing. According to the latest NBC/Telemundo/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama is beating Romney 70 to 25 percent among Latinos.
And Romney’s claim that he would significantly boost U.S.-Latin American ties may be a pipe-dream, considering that most Latin Americans are rooting for Obama. In the latest Latinobarómetro poll conducted in 18 Latin American countries, Obama has the highest approval rating of any president in the region.
But the Republican candidate’s mention of the region as a land of opportunities was a welcome addition to Washington’s narrow-minded foreign policy agenda.
Latin America is one of the world’s few areas that is growing. Between 2003 and 2010, the average income in the region has grown by 30 percent, and 73 million people have been lifted out of poverty, according to World Bank figures. These are millions of potential new consumers of U.S.-made goods.
Several countries, most notably Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil have broken away from Latin America’s tradition of political and economic instability, and are increasingly seen as “serious” countries by international investors. While populist-ruled countries that are destroying most of their industries as they become one-product commodity exporters such as Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia make a lot of noise, they amount to only 14 percent of the region’s economy.
U.S. exports to Latin America have doubled since 2,000, even if the U.S. share of Latin America’s imports has shrunk from 50 percent to 33 percent over the same time due to China’s rapid inroads into the region, according to United Nations data. The United States already exports almost twice more goods to Mexico than to China, and five times more to Brazil than to Russia.
When it comes to the U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the United States already buys more oil from Mexico than from Saudi Arabia, and more than twice more oil from Colombia than from Kuwait.
Theodore Piccone, a foreign policy expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., tells me that Romney’s pitch for expanding U.S. economic ties with Latin America isn’t very realistic. Brazil, the region’s biggest economy, is not interested in a free trade deal with Washington, and most other countries in the region that wanted one already have it, he said.
“Yes, Latin America’s middle classes are growing, but there are big problems with issues such as education,” he said. “If you are going to create knowledge-based economies that want to grow behind commodity-based societies, then Latin America doesn’t look good compared to other regions, such as Asia.”
My opinion: Romney’s proposal to boost U.S. trade with Latin America is largely an effort to improve his standing among Latinos, and not to go down in history as the least-liked Republican candidate among Hispanic voters in recent history. (If Romney gets 25 percent of the Hispanic vote, as the polls suggest, he would be far behind Bush’s 40 percent in 2004, and Sen. John McCain’s 31 percent in 2008.)
Still, I wish Obama would have also mentioned Latin America among his top priorities. He could at least have referred to his ambitious Trans-Pacific Trade proposal, which although mostly geared at Asia, would also include Latin America’s Pacific Rim countries such as Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.
Overall, Romney’s military muscle-based foreign policy rhetoric would most likely worsen, rather than improve, ties with Latin America. But that doesn’t obscure the sad fact that Obama is paying too little attention to the region.