Andres Oppenheimer

A new poll conducted in 18 Latin American countries confirms that the United States has significantly improved its image in the region since President Barack Obama's election. Too bad that the U.S. president is not using that political capital to launch trade agreements with key nations in the hemisphere.

The survey of more than 20,000 people released Wednesday by the Chile-based Latinobarómetro polling firm shows that 74 percent of Latin Americans have a good image of the United States, up from 68 percent in 2000. The finding is consistent with a similar recent survey by Iberobarómetro-CIMA, another polling group, which also showed a major improvement of the U.S. image in the region last year.

"This is the highest image the United States has had in the region since we started doing this poll in 1997," Latinobarómetro president Marta Lagos told me. "There was a big drop between 2001 and 2008, because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and President Bush's foreign policy, but Obama's election has had a clearly positive impact."

Among the countries where the U.S. enjoys the best image are the Dominican Republic, where 91 percent of the population has a favorable opinion, El Salvador (89 percent,) Chile (80 percent) and Colombia (78 percent). They are followed by Brazil and Mexico, with 73 percent and 67 percent of approval, respectively.

The country where the United States has the least favorable image is Argentina, where only 61 percent gave it positive marks, the Latinobarómetro poll shows.

Among other survey findings:

- When compared with other high-profile countries, the United States has a positive image among 74 percent of those polled, Spain 65 percent, the European Union 63 percent, China 58 percent, and Cuba 41 percent.

- Younger Latin Americans tend to have a better image of the United States. While 74 percent of the region's overall population has a positive opinion of the United States, only 55 percent of respondents who were more than 60 years old viewed the United States favorably.

- When asked how they perceive Venezuela's influence in the region, 34 percent of Latin Americans said it is playing a constructive role. The countries where Venezuela got the highest marks for its influence in the region are the Dominican Republic (66 percent), Uruguay (49 percent) and Guatemala (46 percent). Conversely, only 26 percent of Argentines, 25 percent of Brazilians, 21 percent of Mexicans and 19 percent of Peruvians say that Venezuela is playing a positive role.

So what do you make of all these figures? I asked Lagos.

"There's no question that Obama has a huge political capital in the region, but there is a big question about whether he is using it," Lagos responded. "Aside from a huge display of diplomacy and good will, there are no visible, easily identifiable actions."

She added that the region's honeymoon with the U.S. president "may last a long time, because there is a lot of goodwill toward Obama, but it won't last forever."

My opinion: I agree, and I'm afraid that Obama is wasting a great opportunity to build closer ties with the hemisphere by not pushing for congressional ratification of pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, and seeking new trade deals with other countries in the region.

Last weekend, Obama announced that he wants to wrap up trade negotiations with South Korea -- which, like Colombia and Panama, has a pending free trade deal with the United States -- by November, to submit the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement to Congress shortly thereafter.

Does that mean a "yes" to South Korea, and a "no" to Colombia and Panama? If that's the case, Obama will have a hard time meeting his target of doubling U.S. exports worldwide over the next five years.

On May 19, the European Union and Canada signed separate free trade deals with Colombia and Panama, and the Canadian Senate has just given its final approval to a Canada-Colombia free trade deal. European countries are also finalizing trade negotiations with several other Latin American nations.

If Washington delays further, and the rest of the world keeps signing free trade deals with Latin America, U.S. exporters will find it increasingly hard to sell their products in the region.

Obama should push for congressional ratification of the Colombia and Panama deals, as well as the one with South Korea, and take advantage of his good image in the hemisphere to re-launch trade negotiations with other countries in the region. Latin America is expected to enjoy some of the world's highest economic growth rates in coming years, and the United States can't afford to miss its chance to increase its exports to the region.


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