"There's no reason for Obama to be going to Latin America now."
On the contrary. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon once famously told the young Donald Rumsfeld that "people don't give one damn about Latin America now." (To be fair, his view of the region may have been colored by the experience of being pelted with rocks in Caracas while on a vice presidential goodwill tour in May, 1958.) Today, with popular revolutions upending the political order in the Middle East, an unprecedented natural disaster devastating Japan, and his own government hovering on the verge of shutdown, it may seem odd to many that U.S. President Barack Obama is choosing to embark on a five-day tour of a region often considered an afterthought in international politics.
But in fact, Obama's trip south is important for long-term U.S. interests, and long overdue. In today's economic order, where the G-20 is essentially a board of directors with only minority shareholders, the United States needs strong allies. Brazil is the ideal partner: large among the emerging countries, democratic, free of internal tensions, and without enemies. Cultivating that relationship is essential if Washington wants to continue to exercise leadership in the region. The recent turmoil in the Middle East also reminds us again of the fragility of energy security in the United States, and the importance of Latin America as a reliable source of renewable and nonrenewable energy.
Other powers have begun to take notice. China, for one, seems to have a strong strategic interest in a region where the U.S. is losing influence. China is Brazil and Chile's main trading partner, and in 2009 and 2010, the China Development Bank agreed to lend more than $35 billion to borrowers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela (mostly under "loans-for-oil" arrangements). This is three times what the Inter-American Development Bank approves every year for the region as a whole.
U.S. political and business leaders, on the other hand, often seem reluctant to look to Latin America for opportunity, hampered as they are by outdated views of the region as dangerous, economically stagnant, and politically backward. With the U.S. losing market share to other countries eager to invest in and trade with Latin America, it is time to dispel some myths hanging over the region.