President Barack Obama travels to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador this weekend for a four day trip aimed at expanding American trade relations in Latin America and improving security cooperation across the region.
The visit, scheduled two years after the president declared “a new chapter of engagement” with Latin America, comes at a time of considerable upheaval for the White House. As Obama prepared to depart on Friday, he ordered the participation of American armed forces in an international military operation in Libya where longtime ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi clung to power despite a determined rebellion in the east of his country.
All three nations President Obama planned to visit have fairly recently developed into solid democratic republics with an increased openness to international trade and investment. In the administration’s view, Brazil, Chile and El Salvador can serve as examples of a pathway out of the current turmoil in the Middle East.
The Latin America trip coincides with an uninspiring economic recovery at home. While unemployment recently dropped below 9 percent, millions of Americans remain out of work. The journey might be an opportunity to strengthen economic ties yet pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama remain unfinished, sparking criticism from the American business sector as well as the Republican opposition.
According to the president, the impressive growth witnessed in Latin America is both good for the people there and good for Americans. “Thanks in part to our trade agreements across the region, we now export three times as much to Latin America as we do to China, and our exports to the region — which are growing faster than our exports to the rest of the world — will soon support more than two million jobs here in the United States,” he wrote in USA Today Thursday.
While Washington paid relatively little attention to the hemisphere, Brazil emerged as a regional powerhouse, now the seventh largest economy in the world. With its burgeoning economy came aspirations of global leadership, sometimes to the chagrin of the United States.
Former Brazilian president Lula da Silva reached out to other emerging economies, including China and India, and was well respected in the developing world. He led poor countries in opposition to further liberalization of global trade as long as the West insisted on protecting its agricultural market with tariffs and subsidies. His successor may be more pragmatic though.
After a year of strain between Brazil and the United States, mostly because of Lula’s attempted mediation in the international standoff between Iran and the West over the former’s nuclear program, Dilma Rousseff appears determined to patch up the relationship. She has promised to reopen bidding on a multibillion dollar contract to supply fighter jets, giving Boeing a chance to land a deal for which Lula favored a French manufacturer.
Brazil recently discovered huge offshore oil reserves but is virtually energy independent thanks to domestic ethanol production. Obama wrote that he looked forward “to developing a strategic energy partnership” with Brazil but analysts were doubtful whether concrete agreements could be reached during his stay.
Like Brazil, Chile has emerged from decades of military rule with solid economic growth and a resolute democracy. The country is seeking an agreement with the United States for civilian nuclear cooperation, including programs to train Chilean engineers in America. Despite the nuclear crisis in Japan and Chile’s earthquake prone geography, President Sebastián Piñera believes that atomic energy is vital to his country.
In El Salvador, Obama will be looking for a partner to combat drug related crime that has reached out into Central America after Colombia and Mexico forcefully suppressed its production and trade.
Previous conservative governments pursued free trade and pro-American policies. Under Mauricio Funes, the country’s first socialist president, El Salvador’s economy grew modestly last year but is projected to expand at more than 5 percent in 2011. Over 40 percent of Salvadoran exports heads for the United States every year.