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Don't ignore Latin America

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

President Barack Obama's state-of-the-world speech before the U.N. General Assembly last month did not mention any Latin American country and virtually omitted the region as a whole. It was a major mistake.

Secretary of State John Kerry might just as well change his title to secretary of the Middle East because that's where he's virtually living these days. Kerry's first seven foreign trips after taking office on Feb. 1 were to Europe and the Middle East, and only two of his 14 trips abroad so far have been to Latin America.

Obama mentioned Latin America only tangentially when he said that “from Africa to the Americas” democracies have proven to be more successful than dictatorships and that “the same will hold true for the Arab world.”

By contrast, several of Obama's predecessors often referred to their grand plans for the region during their U.N. speeches. But Obama has not proposed regional trade or investment plans with Latin America.

The Obama administration has launched negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership with mostly Asian countries and a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with European countries but no Trans-American Partnership with Latin America. Mexico asked Obama to be part of the Trans-Atlantic trade deal but the United States' answer has been somewhere between “no” and “later.”

Granted, Obama has made six trips to the region and he recently asked Vice President Joe Biden to be his point man for U.S.-Latin American relations. And it's also true that Obama has had to deal with a particularly pitiful cast of characters in Latin America.

Authoritarian populist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others, have taken to new levels the old gimmick of blaming the United States for their economic shortcomings, even if many of them have enjoyed (and wasted) the biggest economic bonanza in recent memories.

As a result of these leaders' notoriety, many in the U.S. Congress see Latin America as a region led by clowns in funny shirts. Brazil's tensions with Washington over the U.S. electronic spying fiasco and new projections that Latin America's economic growth will slow down after a decade of rapid expansion are not helping generate big hopes for U.S. ties with the region.

But now is not the time for the U.S. to ignore Latin America. On the contrary, the decade of commodity-based authoritarian populism will soon come to an end — populism works only when there's money to give away — and a new generation of more responsible Latin American leaders are preparing themselves to be voted into office.

Geography is the mother of history and there is no region in the world that will have a greater impact on U.S. daily life in terms of immigration, the environment, trade, energy or culture than Latin America. The region deserves more.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald.

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