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How the U.S. is Losing Latin America

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Recently, American foreign policy priorities have been highly focused on the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions. Between winding down the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and navigating the tumult caused by the Arab Spring, President Obama has spent much of his diplomatic capital in the Middle East.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the president has further increased American diplomatic involvement. For the past few years, the U.S. has engaged China on trade and security issues, grappled with the increasingly volatile situation in North Korea, and worked to develop more robust trade partnerships with other countries in the region.

Meanwhile, American clout in Latin America is waning. Nick Miroff of the Washington Post wrote in January that “with Washington’s diplomatic attention largely focused elsewhere, on Asia and the Middle East, Latin America’s shift had resulted in declining U.S. influence.” Mark Weisbrot agreed with this analysis when he wrote in The Guardian that “Latin America, and especially South America, has become independent of Washington in the past 15 years…”

This presents a huge challenge to American foreign policy interests. Already, the trade relationship between the United States and Latin America has suffered. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, exports to South and Central America decreased from approximately $183 billion in 2012 to roughly $169 billion in 2013. At the same time, imports from Latin America were approximately $172 billion in 2012, and decreased to roughly $146 billion in 2013.

Even as trade between the United States and Latin America has been disappointing, China has moved into the gap left by the lack of U.S. interest in the region. Patricia Rey Mallen of the International Business Times reported in December 2013 that “in some Latin countries, China has even reached the status of top trading partner. For example, with respect to Brazil, China surpassed the U.S. in 2009…”

Not only is China working to out-trade the United States in the Latin American region, China is also working to out-invest the United States in the region. Weisbrot writes:

“China has already helped Venezuala with tens of billions of dollars of loans–much of which has already been repaid–as well as investment. It has also provided significant lending and investment in Ecuador, Cuba, Brazil and other countries.”

The United States has also made critical mistakes with regard to many countries in Latin America. Last July, Anthony Boadle of Reuters reported that several nations in the region were “irate” in response to allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency has been monitoring the Internet.

Then in September, before the United Nations General Assembly, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff condemned NSA phone eavesdropping. She also cancelled a state visit to the United States.

In the end, it is apparent that the United States cannot afford to lose influence in Latin America. According to a January report by the World Bank, GDP growth in Latin America and the Caribbean is expected to be 3.7 percent in 2016. Columbia is expected to see growth at or above 4 percent for the next several years. Brazil’s growth rate is expected to increase from 2.2 percent in 2013 to 3.7 percent in 2016.

In Foreign Affairs, Christopher Sabatini wrote that “twenty-first-century Latin America has its own, autonomous power dynamics. A little realism would go a long way.”

What should the United States do to reverse its declining clout in Latin America?

Latin America is poised to make solid economic gains in the next several years, and the United States should actively re-engage in the region. On issues of trade and security issues, America can make substantial progress with countries like Mexico and Colombia and Brazil. The United States cannot allow itself to be out-done in its own backyard, and especially by one of its primary rivals: China.

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