With President Barack Obama having returned from Latin America a little over a week ago, Washington has again turned its attention to other world regions. The problem is that, even during the trip, Washington never really focused on our hemisphere. Yes, the timing of the Libya military intervention certainly did not help coverage of Obama’s first presidential trip to Central and South America. But don’t forget about the “Ugly Betty” effect—a term recently used by CNN International anchor Luis Carlos Vélez in reference to the popular Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty la Fea.
In the telenovela, Betty la Fea demonstrates intellect but is constantly ignored and overlooked due to her perceived lack of beauty; however, over time she becomes indispensable to her organization’s success. Given the substantial economic and political strides that Latin America has accomplished, Mr. Vélez makes a valid point. The region is a success story but people often tend to ignore it. The President’s trip once again demonstrated this unfortunate reality. Take the press conference in El Salvador for example; of the seven questions asked to Obama and Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes by domestic and foreign media, only three had anything to do with the region.
The three countries that hosted Obama during his five-day visit—Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador—are representative of the region’s success. They are flourishing democracies that emerged from dark political pasts, and are governed by centrists who enjoy bipartisan support.
Latin America exited the Great Recession with remarkable speed, having stored away sizeable fiscal reserves beforehand due to shrewd countercyclical measures—a sharp contrast to the massive debts blighting central banks in the United States and European Union. These initiatives helped lift millions from poverty and expand the Latin American middle class. The Institute of International Finance predicts Latin America’s economy as a whole will grow by 4.5 percent in 2011, building on the 6.1 percent growth in 2010. The president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, even coined the 2010s as “the Latin American decade.”
The world has noticed, but the U.S. has yet to fully embrace this trend. The United States is no longer the largest trading partner of Brazil and Chile; that title now belongs to China. In holding up ratification of the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements (FTAs), the U.S. is increasingly missing out. Latin America is now looking eastward—not just to Asia, but also to Arab countries like Egypt and Gulf states.
The top priority of Obama’s trip was to help create jobs and increase the economic competitiveness of the United States. Pursuant to these economic goals, U.S. policymakers would be mistaken to dismiss Latin America as an afterthought. While U.S. export activity to the region is triple that to China—amounting to one-fifth of the annual U.S. export total and supporting 2 million American jobs—substantial opportunities for foreign direct investment in Latin America remain.
Brazil is particularly critical. Its GDP growth in 2011 is projected to be 4.1 percent, on top of an estimated 7.5 percent in 2010. Brazil’s rise as part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) bloc has dramatically changed the realm of global governance, rapidly transitioning from the outmoded G-8 model during the Bush era in favor of the G-20. This is precisely why the president of the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. (Ex-Im), Fred Hochberg, accompanied Obama in Brazil.
Hochberg noted that there is ample opportunity to expand bilateral trade and strengthen commercial ties. He pointed specifically to the areas of: infrastructure (Brazil is planning to spend $200 billion ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics); mass transit (Rio de Janeiro aims to increase ridership from 16 percent of citizens to 50 percent by 2016); and electricity (Brazil is expecting to increase consumption by over 60 percent before 2019). Not surprisingly, Obama unveiled $1 billion in Ex-Im financing for projects while in Brasilia and addressed a high-level CEO forum attended by Brazilian and American executives.
Obama’s trip opened up new opportunities for collaboration in Santiago besides traditional economic matters (e.g., U.S.-Chile FTA, Trans-Pacific Partnership). Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and his U.S. counterpart signed various agreements on issues like national parks, nuclear energy, natural disaster preparedness, international development and English language training. Also, Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed memoranda of understanding on labor cooperation and global sporting events—in addition to creating or furthering dialogue on matters such as social inclusion, human rights and security cooperation.
In hindsight, it is important to note that Obama in fact went ahead with the trip. With rapidly unfolding global events, Ugly Betty could have been cast aside altogether in favor of hunkering down in Washington. That would have been a mistake. As White House Communications Director Daniel Pfeiffer remarked, “You have to be able to walk, chew gum and juggle at the same time.”
However, merely traveling to Latin America cannot be the solution. Tangible overtures must be made to reinforce that Latin America represents a crucial asset for future U.S. competitiveness. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela wrote that President Obama’s three visits provided a forward-looking reset of diplomatic relations. But a reset is just the beginning. In many ways, the United States needs Latin America. Obama’s trip underscores the obvious truth: Betty la Fea is shining on the global stage.
*Ryan Berger is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He works at Americas Quarterly and graduated from Emory University in 2009.