by Andres Oppenheimer

Presumptive Republican candidate Gov. Mitt Romney is reportedly planning to visit Great Britain, Germany, Poland and Israel in an effort to boost his foreign policy credentials. Big mistake - he should start his foreign tour in Mexico.

It's not just that visiting Mexico would send a signal that he has not given up on Hispanic voters, who are supporting President Barack Obama by 63 percent to 23 percent for Romney, according to the polls. It would be a sign that Romney understands where some of the biggest U.S. challenges and opportunities lie.

The next U.S. president, whether it's Obama or Romney, will enjoy a rare chronological bonus in U.S.-Mexican relations: he will start his term almost simultaneously with a new Mexican president, which will allow the two administrations to embark on new - and bold - economic initiatives.

Judging from what I am hearing here from top advisers to Enrique Pena Nieto, the winner of Mexico's recent elections, the new Mexican government will be eager to upgrade economic ties with Washington.

Pena Nieto wants to boost private investments in Mexico's Pemex oil monopoly and shale gas industry, and increase U.S.-Mexico trade, among other things by joining the U.S.-proposed Trans Pacific Partnership trade initiative that would create the world's largest free trade area in the Pacific basin, his top aides say.

Mexico is already the third largest U.S. trading partner, after China and Canada, and buys about $200 billion in U.S. exports of goods a year. To put that in perspective, the United States exports more goods to Mexico than to Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Poland combined, according to U.S. Census figures.

And at a time when European economies are growing at a snail's pace or not growing at all, Mexico - and Latin America in general - offer the greatest opportunity for U.S. exports, Pena Nieto's advisers say.

Indeed, Latin America is growing at an average of 4 percent a year, and has been growing steadily for the past decade. Over the past 10 years, about 73 million Latin Americans have joined the middle class, according to World Bank estimates, buying more goods and becoming an engine for what economists predict will be steady growth in coming years.

In addition, huge oil and shale gas discoveries in Mexico and Brazil are likely to turn Latin America into an even bigger source of world energy, further reducing the U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Already, about half of U.S. oil imports come from Western Hemisphere nations.

And then, there is always the so-called "negative agenda" - drugs, gang violence and illegal immigration - that should put Mexico and the rest of Latin America at the top of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Over the past five years, more than 50,000 people have died in Mexico's drug wars. You don't have to watch Savages - the latest Oliver Stone movie - to suspect that the drug cartels' violence may increasingly spill over to U.S. territory.

Romney campaign sources say that their candidate's foreign tour, first reported by, will start in Great Britain later this month, and that Romney will go to Israel at a later date.

Asked why he will be bypassing Latin America, Romney spokesman Alberto Martinez told me that "Governor Romney has placed a greater emphasis on Latin America during his campaign than President Obama has during four years of his presidency."

Martinez added that "While President Obama has neglected Latin America, Governor Romney has laid out a detailed plan to expand economic ties, support allies, defend democracy, and partner on the mutual problems of drugs and crime. Governor Romney will make our relations in Latin America a top priority."

My opinion: Granted, Obama has not paid much attention to Latin America, or launched any ambitious regional trade plan comparable to his proposed Trans Pacific Partnership.

But Obama sealed free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, and has made four trips to Latin America as president.

Also, while Romney antagonized millions of Hispanics with his hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric in the primaries, Obama's recent decision to stop deportations of about 800,000 Dream Act eligible college students who were brought to this country as infants has been applauded by most Latinos.

There is nothing wrong with Romney visiting Britain, Germany, Poland and Israel, and posing for the cameras with foreign leaders to try to blunt criticism that he lacks foreign policy experience. But the world - and the U.S. electorate - has changed. Romney should go back to his travel agent, and ask him to start his tour in Mexico.


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Mitt Romney's Tour Starts in Wrong Place | Politics

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