Will the US “Lose” Latin America?

On November 4-5, the fourth Summit of the Americas took place in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The heads of state of the hemisphere’s democratic countries met to discuss economic, political, and social issues – and to lose another opportunity to create a new and healthier relationship between the United States and its Latin American neighbors.

Indeed, the Summit amounted to nothing more than an outsized photo opportunity. No important issues were resolved, and no progress was made on the many topics that increasingly divide the countries of Latin America and the US. In particular, no progress was made on the creation of a free-trade area for the region.

This is all the more disappointing, given that the region’s leaders declared more than a decade ago, during the first Summit of the Americas, held in Miami in December 1994, that free-trade negotiations would be “concluded no later than 2005.” At the center of the failure to make headway on the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is America’s unwillingness, and that of the Bush administration, to open up its agricultural sector to competition from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.

True, the US is not the worst offender in the world when it comes to farm protectionism; the European Union’s trade distortions are significantly more pervasive. But it is also true that if the US wants to improve relations with its neighbors to the south, America should make significant bilateral trade concessions to the Latin American countries. In the absence of US leadership in matters of international trade, the majority of Latin American countries will not open their economies further to foreign competition, and some may even return to increased protectionism.