By Andres Oppenheimer

If President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney spend any time talking about Latin America during the campaign for the November elections, I can already see the thrust of their discussion -- who lost Latin America?

Republican foreign policy-makers, such as House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen and Senate foreign relations committee member Marco Rubio, are already stepping up their criticism of Obama for what they see as a rapid decline of U.S. economic and political influence in Latin America.

But are they right? And are the solutions they offer, including more forceful stands against anti-democratic governments in the region, the right ones?

Recent studies by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) leave little doubt that the United States has lost market-share in Latin America, especially in South America.


- U.S. foreign investments in Latin America, which were by far the largest in the region a few decades ago, amounted to 18 percent of the region's total foreign investments in 2011. By comparison, the 27-member European Union represented 40 percent of all foreign investments in the region.

The United States remains the largest single investor in the region, followed by Spain with 14 percent of foreign investments, ECLAC says.

- When it comes to trade, the share of Latin America's overall imports that are made in the U.S.A. fell from 55 percent to 32 percent over the past decade. Similarly, the share of Latin America's overall exports that are going to the United States fell from 61 percent to 42 percent over the past decade.

- While the United States used to have a "strategic vision" toward the region when it proposed plans such as the Alliance for Progress or the Free Trade Area of the Americas in past decades, no equivalent to these ambitious initiatives exists today.

Critics add that, politically, the United Sates has lost ground as well. During last month's Summit of the Americas where Obama met with regional heads of state and government, they failed to agree on a final statement because of differences over Cuba and Argentina's claims to the Falkland/Malvinas islands.

In addition, critics point out that Latin American countries have recently created new regional institutions, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). While these groups may end up being empty shells, they were created to exclude the United States from regional decisions.

Roberta Jacobson, the new U.S. State Department head of Western Hemisphere affairs, told me in an interview that, contrary to what critics say, polls show that the U.S. image -- and that of Obama's -- in the region "is very high these days," and Latin American tourism to the United States "has exploded" to new highs.

"It's not that we are losing influence in Latin America, but that there are other actors, such as China, which are conducting trade with the region," Jacobson said. "That's something that can be beneficial not only to Latin America, but also to the United States."

In a speech at Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy on Friday, Jacobson added that during the Obama administration, U.S. exports to the Americas have soared by more than $200 billion to $650 billion, and today comprise 42 percent of overall U.S. exports.

With the recently approved U.S. free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, the United States has now trade agreements with 12 countries in the region. The United States seeks "the collective success of this hemisphere," she said.

My opinion: Washington has lost some of its former economic clout in Latin America, but that started under former President George. W. Bush, and is not an irreversible tragedy.

It's something largely due to China's seemingly endless appetite for South America's commodities, a phenomenon that is likely to diminish in coming years as China's economy slows, and South American countries become disenchanted with becoming raw material-dependent economies.

We will expand in coming columns over whether Obama or Romney offer the best policies toward Latin America. But, when it comes to the future U.S. role in Latin America, it seems that it will be something like that of today's Germany in Europe.

As Latin America's commodity-based radical populist fad of the past decade begins to unravel, Washington will no longer be an almighty superpower, but a big first among equals.


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