Southern neighbors deserve attention


The interest that Russia shows in developments in its neighboring countries stands in sharp contrast to U.S. foreign policy’s scant focus on the Latin American nations to the south.

Either the United States takes the region’s 26 countries for granted or it prefers to obsess about the Middle East, China or now Russia and Ukraine — countries that are far away and regions where it is difficult and expensive to exert U.S. influence.

Latin America, however, is important to U.S. trade and investment. Although the North American Free Trade Agreement continues to be criticized by some Americans, closer integration of the economies of Canada, Mexico and the United States was inevitable. U.S. immigration reform may remain a political will ‘o the wisp, but the nation needs sound immigration policy for the economy to work.

Latin America continues to chug along, with nations’ political and economic success depending to some degree on how well they can build their institutions, as opposed to following like lemmings assorted political demagogues, particularly in Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. That country, in spite of $100 billion in annual oil revenues, is an economic mess plagued by corruption, a high crime rate and grossly inadequate infrastructure.

The major countries that are doing well, and should enjoy closer U.S. attention, include Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. Colombia, in spite of the curse of narcotics production under which it operates, has experienced strong growth in gross national product.

The U.S. policy toward Cuba of attempted isolation, which the rest of Latin America ignores and despises, would benefit strongly from actions by President Barack Obama, from whom better was expected and who still has nearly three years to serve. It is safe to say that if Washington had had the courage to pick up the porcupine of change in U.S.-Cuban policy even in 2009, when he came to office, working with President Raul Castro, who is now slowly bringing change to Cuba, would have produced fruitful results in U.S. relations with the nearby island.

It still can be done and is probably in the category of low-hanging foreign policy fruit, if only Obama would reach for it.