President Obama's whirlwind tour of Latin America this week delivered some good news and bad news for Latin American watchers. First comes the bad the news, which I don't think was all that bad in light of the milestone trip. The visit, rightfully positioned as a trade mission to help create American jobs given the anemic state of the U.S. economy, was cut short and proved uninteresting to American media. No one besides the host countries seemed to care.
This media neglect was understandable given the pressing developments in Libya and Japan but it still serves as a reminder that Latin America is nowhere near the top of priorities for Washington. Instead the U.S. is pushing its multitasking skills addressing the geopolitical challenges in the Middle East and Afghanistan, while exploring the economic and business potential posed by India and China. It's hard to argue against those priorities.
What does this mean for Latin America and its more than five hundred million people? The good news is that Washington's imperfect and somewhat indifferent foreign policy for Latin America might actually serve as a compliment to the region's growing stability. Latin America used to get a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons. Many of its countries were the Libyas and Afghanistan of back in the day, and by that I mean the cold war period when we chased communists in the Central American jungles. Things have changed.
Latin American countries have come a long way since the eighties with many of them making a full transition to democratic systems and growing economies. Notable exceptions abound in the form of Chavez and the Castro brothers, but they are in the minority. Most of the Latin American left skews centrist and pro-trade. The result is a more democratic and stable region. And that's part of the reason why Latin America has somewhat fallen off Washington's red hot geopolitical radar, and is now slowly coming back for trade and economic reasons.
The poster child for this new engagement around trade is Brazil, one of the three stops in this tour along with Chile and El Salvador. The South American giant has been growing over 5% for the past couple of years, and was recently tagged as the 7th largest global economy. Rich in resources and with a growing middle class hungry for products, Obama is betting on Brazil to help create U.S. jobs. He made the pitch to Brazil's new President Dilma Rouseff. Obama kept to his trade-centered message in his two other stops, while acknowledging the sociopolitical progress of both Chile and El Salvador.
The most important part of the trip was Obama's tone of partnership, however non-committal. Gone was the somewhat condescending stance of past American lectures around building democratic governments and applying austerity measures. These Latin American nations had grown up and taken their destiny into their own hands. They learned their lessons and applied them to create growth, something our big but struggling economy now slightly covets.
The trick is now to continue the momentum from this trip. For Latin America the trip is an encouragement that it's on a good track but that it needs to do more if it wants to compete with other regions. A critical first step is a greater investment in the region's education, a clear strategic challenge for sustainable growth.
For the United States, momentum from this trip should mean expanding trade agreement with Colombia, and to build more areas for engagement with regional leaders Mexico and Brazil. An immediate area for collaboration with Mexico is combating the drug trafficking crisis, fueled by consumption at home, that is having a huge toll on civil society.
We must also continue working with the region's leaders and multilateral organizations to make sure the region's economic development is equitable. Latin America still suffers from great inequalities, which can be a combustible element when many of those impacted are the region's youth.
So the moral of the story is that what makes Latin America boring right now -- might be its greatest achievement -- progress and stability. Let's keep working on that, as we collaborate on ways of making the region more innovative and interesting on all other areas by investing more in its people, especially its youth. A stronger Latin America means a stronger U.S.