U.S.-Mexico Trade: The Numbers and the Real Issues

By Robert A. Blecker*

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Two maquiladoras in Tijuana, Mexico. The low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA. / Anthony Albright / Flickr / Creative Commons

Officials in the Trump administration are proposing a new way of measuring the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit that, by making the deficit look larger than it currently appears, will likely be spun to support efforts to impose high tariffs or dismantle NAFTA.  According to press reports, the President’s senior advisors, including the head of his new trade council, Peter Navarro, are proposing to include only “domestic exports” (exports of U.S.-produced goods) in calculating bilateral trade balances with Mexico and other countries.  This would exclude “re-exports” – goods that are imported into the United States from other countries (such as Canada or China) and transshipped into Mexico – which are currently counted in total U.S. exports.

  • In spite of its political motivation, the proposed new accounting would render a more accurate measure of U.S. exports. In fact, it would make the U.S. deficit with Mexico look closer to what Mexico reports as its surplus with the U.S.  For 2016, the U.S. reports a deficit of $63.2 billion with Mexico, while Mexico reports almost twice as big a surplus of $123.1 billion with the U.S.  If the U.S. excluded re-exports, its trade deficit with Mexico for 2016 would be $115.4 billion, which is much closer to the Mexican number.

Nonetheless, this recalculation fails to correct for another bias, which makes the U.S. deficit with Mexico look artificially large.  Imports are measured by the total value of the goods when they enter the country, from the immediate country of origin.  But in today’s global supply chains only part of the value-added in imported goods comes from any one country.  A television, for example, can be assembled in Mexico with components imported from Korea and other East Asian nations.  As a result, the reported U.S. imports from Mexico (especially of manufactured goods) greatly exaggerate the Mexican content of those goods.  Although data limitations do not permit an exact calculation of the Mexican content of U.S. imports from Mexico, it is likely relatively low.  (My own estimates suggest it is on the order of about 30-40 percent for manufactured goods).  Indeed, the low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA.

The Trump Administration’s aggressive rhetoric and action on other issues related to Mexico, including immigration and the wall, suggest a political motivation for the proposal to adopt a new measure of exports, regardless of its merits.  But the real problem is not the “correct” number for the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit; it is why NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of supporting high-value added exports and high-wage job creation in both countries.  This promise was based on the idea that the United States would export capital and intermediate goods to Mexico for assembly into consumer goods, which would then be exported back to the United States.  But especially since China joined the WTO in 2001, Mexico has increasingly become a platform for assembling mostly Asian inputs into goods for export to the United States (and secondarily Canada).  Even if “re-exports” are excluded, Mexico remains the second largest export market for the United States (after Canada) – and U.S. exports to Mexico are 65 percent greater than U.S. exports to China.  Focusing too much on measuring the U.S.-Mexico trade imbalance only distracts attention from the need to reform NAFTA so as to encourage more of the “links” in global supply chains to be produced in North America generally.  If the Trump administration is serious about making the U.S. more competitive vis-à-vis China, it should think about viewing Mexico as a partner instead of as an enemy.  In the larger context of Trump’s many objectionable policies on migration and in other areas, a long-overdue correction of U.S. export statistics is not worth getting upset over.  The real issue is whether Trump’s trade policies – with Mexico and beyond – will bring the promised gains to U.S. workers, or will further enrich corporate billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.

February 23, 2017

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

What Will Trump Do About NAFTA?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the flag of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). / Flickr and Wikimedia / Creative Commons / Modified

Despite his campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump probably won’t touch it, except in superficial ways.  He has called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever,” and promised to pull the U.S. out unless Mexico and Canada agree to renegotiate it.  Last week, he suggested renegotiation of NAFTA will include provisions for Mexico to repay the U.S. government for the wall he wants to build along the border.

Dismantling or even significantly rewriting the accord is unlikely for a couple reasons:

  • First, the billionaires, chief executives, and friends he is choosing for his cabinet are hardly people inclined to dismantle an agreement whose contents largely reflect what American business wanted from the U.S.-Mexico relationship when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. Corporate preferences weighed heavily against any big deviation from the status quo after the last political transition in Washington, in 2008.  Barack Obama too said that “NAFTA was a mistake,” though his criticisms were a little different.  He railed against lobbyists’ disproportionate influence over trade policy, and promised big changes to international trade agreements, including better protections for workers and the environment.  Even so, he didn’t touch NAFTA, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he negotiated included – like NAFTA – shady provisions for investor-state dispute settlement.
  • It would be near-impossible, or least massively expensive, to get what Trump seems to want most: a big drop in imports from Mexico. In his eyes this would make NAFTA a better deal for America, though of course serious economists disagree.  Realistically, reopening the agreement would be very messy, and if he tried to throw up massive new trade barriers business leaders would strongly object.  NAFTA could include some additional measures to make it easier for goods and/or people to get around among the NAFTA countries, but that’s not what Trump has promised.

His economic nationalism makes the Republican Party establishment squirm, but it’s clear it also helped Trump win several Midwestern states, tipping the electoral college in his favor.  Insofar as agreements like NAFTA entrench rules friendly to business, and generate market efficiencies and economies whose benefits accumulate in the hands of the few, voter hostility is no mystery.  But economics is only part of the reason.  The bigger issue is what the backlash against globalization – embodied also by Brexit and the rise of neo-nationalist parties in Europe – means more broadly.  The average Democratic voter has a lower income than the average Republican voter, but Democrats are more supportive of trade agreements because they are more internationalist, more open to other cultures, younger, more educated, and more urban.  Throughout his presidency, Trump will therefore be squeezed between his working class rhetoric – appealing to the distrustful – and his business class milieu.  He is an extreme case of the politicians’ mercantilist thinking on trade, wherein exports are good and imports are bad, and “trade deals” like NAFTA are somehow like deals in the business world, where it’s possible to out-negotiate someone.  The reality is that this thinking – which flies in the face of basic economics – doesn’t point to any clear course of action.  This is why Trump won’t actually do much about NAFTA.

January 10, 2017

* Malcolm Fairbrother is social science researcher and teacher/mentor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol (UK).  This article is adapted from a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association.

Does Trade Incentivize Educational Achievement?

By Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez, Luis-Felipe López-Calva, and Nora Lustig*

Female student walking by building

A student walks around Preparatoria Vasconcelos Tecate. / Gabriel Flores Romero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s experience with free trade has challenged one of the tenets of faith economists know well from reading early in their careers David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation: that “the pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole” and that “[trade] distributes labor most effectively and most economically.”  Under this principle, “wine shall be made in France and Portugal; corn shall be grown in America and Poland; and hardware and other goods shall be manufactured in England.”  Mexico reminds us that while these benefits exist in the abstract, there are trade-offs to be faced—that there are, potentially, social and individual costs induced by trade liberalization.

In a recently published paper entitled “Endogenous Skill Acquisition and Export Manufacturing in Mexico,” MIT economics professor David Atkin shows the ways in which individual people experience trade and how it affects their decision-making – sometimes in ways that may not necessarily be socially desirable.  It analyzes a time period (1986-2000) during which Mexico underwent major economic transformations, including a rapid process of trade liberalization after 1989 and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Analyzing data for more than 2,300 municipalities in the country, the paper tells us that young Mexicans at the time faced a very basic decision: to stay in school and continue studying or to drop out and look for a job (among the many being created in the export-oriented manufacturing sector), most of which did not require more than a high school education.  Atkin found that, on average, for every 25 new jobs created in the manufacturing sector, one student would drop out after 9th grade.  (The World Development Report 2008 on Agriculture for Development had raised the question about “missing” individuals in this age group, but in relation to migration.)

  • While trade brought positive effects including a higher demand for low skilled workers and an eventual increase in their wages – consistent with David Ricardo’s basic notion – Atkin concluded that in Mexico it had the socially undesirable effect of preventing, or slowing down, the accumulation of human capital. The reduction in human capital investment is a trade-off which can have negative effects on the economy as a whole.
  • Factors other than free trade might explain this effect. First, young students may drop out if the returns to schooling are not high enough to compensate for the additional investment.  Second, a lack of access to credit and insurance for relatively poorer households might make it impossible for aspiring students to finance their investment and obtain higher returns by continuing to tertiary education or to cope with shocks and avoid abandoning school.  Finally, the result could be driven by a lack of availability of information about actual returns to investment in education, which could lead to myopic decision-making.

The movement of capital toward locations with lower labor costs is an expected, and intended, result of an agreement such as NAFTA, pursuing higher export competitiveness at the regional level.  David Ricardo would have said that TVs and automobiles shall be made in Mexico, while software shall be made in Silicon Valley.  What completes the story, however, is that because of distortions like the ones mentioned above – low educational quality, under-developed credit markets, or weak information that skews decision-making – free trade might lead to socially undesirable consequences.  And it did in the case of Mexico, as Atkin convincingly shows in his paper.  It seems that when Ricardo gets to the tropics, the world gets more complex.

November 7, 2016

* Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez teaches at the Centro de Estudios Económicos at el Colegio de México, and is currently conducting research at the University of California, Berkeley.  Luis-Felipe López-Calva is Lead Economist and Co-Director of the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and the Law.  Nora Lustig is Professor of Latin American Economics at Tulane University.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Early Reactions Mixed

By Luciano Melo*

Photo Credit: Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Bob Nichols (U.S. Department of Agriculture) / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreed to on October 5 is drawing both praise and criticism, but approval by legislatures in some signatory nations – particularly the United States – is not a foregone conclusion.  Negotiators representing the 12 Pacific-rim countries involved – including Mexico, Chile, and Peru – hailed the agreement as historic.  It is a far-reaching agreement that will expand countries’ access to a combined market that represents about 40 percent of global GDP, with 800 million consumers.  It seeks to reduce tariffs – including 18,000 on U.S. goods alone – and lower non-tariff trade barriers as well.  The negotiators claim the accord also creates a fair compromise framework for protecting intellectual property rights; adopts the strongest-ever labor and environmental protections; and in a novel feature, establishes assistance for small- and medium-sized businesses to navigate the complex regulations and red tape involved in trade.  Communist Vietnam is a party to the agreement.

Reactions in Latin America have been mixed:

  • El Comercio (Peru) wrote that the TPP will help companies to establish better partnerships with the U.S. and Canada, and to create value chains in which Peru will buy commodities from one country, process them, and sell the resulting product to another. How that long-sought and developmentally imperative objective would be achieved through TPP remains vague, however.
  • El Financiero (Mexico) similarly portrayed the agreement as a means to increase production and foster the specialization of economies. Other Mexican commentators, however, reminded readers that NAFTA and other agreements have not brought the expected results; previous accords have undoubtedly boosted Mexican integration into global and regional manufacturing networks but have actually hurt the agricultural sector – accelerating decades-long migration from the countryside to cities and to the U.S.
  • Mexican and Chilean experts on the pharmaceutical industry, along with Australian and Asian counterparts, claim that TPP provisions on intellectual property will hinder the generic medications sector. They are concerned the accord will allow large U.S. multinationals to expand into markets with products that cannot be replicated for extended periods time.  Chile had negotiated aggressively against Washington’s efforts to transplant its laws providing 12-year monopolies to manufacturers of biologic drugs – compromising on a five‑year period extendable under some conditions to eight.  The Fundacion Equidad Chile warned that the agreement could cost its health sector about $540 million year more due to such provisions.

Details of the agreement will be made public in coming weeks.  While criticism of the secrecy surrounding the accord will naturally fade, substantive debate on its provisions will almost certainly increase amid expensive campaigns by policy advocates on both sides pointing out flaws both real and imagined.  But opposition seems relatively weak in the three signatory countries in Latin America, and ratification there appears likely.  Chile has long been the region’s champion of free trade, and Mexican technocrats appear convinced that trade is key to the country’s eventual graduation to high-income status.  With the commodity boom waning, Peru is counting on TPP to open avenues into a broader array of industries.  In the U.S., however, the path seems rockier.  Congress gave Obama “fast-track” authority, which will allow him to submit the agreement to an up or down vote without congressional amendments that would rip it apart, but criticism of TPP persists.  Some argue that it strengthens ties with Asian countries with bad records in environment, human rights, and labor laws.  An odd twist to the domestic landscape came from presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton, who added her voice to the opposition – putting her on the same side, albeit for different reasons, with Republican opponents who have called TPP a “bad deal.”  President Obama will have to work hard to sell this new trade agreement to Capitol Hill and the nation. 

October 14, 2015

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.

Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Political Step Forward

By Fulton Armstrong

In more than 10 cities across the U.S. activists will use guerrilla light projection to illuminate monuments and building facades with slogans like “Don't Let Comcast Choke Your Freedom,” “No Slow Lanes, Open & Equal Internet For All,” and “TPP Dismantles Democracy.

In more than 10 cities across the U.S. activists used guerrilla light projection to illuminate monuments and building facades with slogans like “Don’t Let Comcast Choke Your Freedom,” “No Slow Lanes, Open & Equal Internet For All,” and “TPP Dismantles Democracy.” Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign / Flickr / Creative Commons

The chairmen of key U.S. Congressional committees agreed on legislation allowing President Obama to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord, but major political and substantive obstacles to an agreement remain. The leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees announced the move, with the key Democratic senator involved claiming that the Obama Administration had addressed his deep concerns about the secrecy of the talks. If passed, their bill would give the President “fast-track” trade authority – power to negotiate an accord that the Senate would eventually vote on but without the power to amend it, which would significantly increase chances of passage. Obama’s advisors have called TPP the “cornerstone” of his Asia policy, and the President said last week that it would help “make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy.” Supporters estimate that TPP would stimulate growth by eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers affecting $2 trillion of goods and services (about one-third of global trade) each year among its 12 members.*

Opposition in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere remains intense, however. The Senate Democratic whip, charged with tallying support and opposition, stated that only one-quarter of Senate Democrats support the measure – and those opponents have made clear their concerns about the implications for U.S. workers and consumers. Although tariffs are on the table, most observers say the focus of the negotiations is on “harmonizing” regulations, which big multinational corporations – which have access to the talks that citizens’ groups lack – systematically seek to eliminate. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are pushing hard for extending patents and trademarks so that cheaper generic medications cannot be sold. Critics say revisions to copyright and trademark provisions would also have implications for public information and the internet. Industry is seeking to roll back environmental protections in place since the early 1970s. The negotiations have been secret, but a leaked chapter of the draft agreement revealed that companies were gaining the right to sue governments if any regulatory action ever caused their profits to fall short of target – a massive burden on budgets.

The lack of transparency, which the leading Senate Democrat claims has been addressed, may have stoked opponents’ concerns. But the differences between U.S. backers and opponents appear significant and unlikely to fade without some serious political horse-trading, which the Obama Administration has been unwilling to do. In his statement last week, Obama admitted that “it’s no secret that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise” – particularly regarding job creation – but neither he nor the Congressional chairmen have provided hard data showing that dismantling a host of regulations to accommodate corporate agendas will help consumers and un- or under-employed U.S. workers. If history is any guide, the Latin American signatories – Mexico, Chile and Peru – may see a favorable impact regarding employment in certain sectors, and others may see it as the only game in trade right now and thus worth trying to join, but Washington’s vision of TPP as primarily an Asia policy – to counter Chinese influence – suggests that they too see the advantages of participation accruing across the Pacific rather than to the north.

* Currently envisioned as members are the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam: Korea last week expressed interest in joining the talks, but the United States told it to wait. Colombia is interested, and Panama and Costa Rica seek membership in the “Pacific Alliance,” which is related to TPP.

April 20, 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Framework for U.S.-Latin America Relations?

By Eric Hershberg


President Obama’s desire to move forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appears likely to founder amidst Congressional resistance to granting him “fast-track” authority, but it does signal a noteworthy initiative by an administration eager to grow trade relations with some Latin American countries.  Originally formed by Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore in 2006, TPP is currently negotiating the accession of five new members, including the United States and Peru.  Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Canada, and Japan are also considering joining.  U.S. Undersecretary for International Trade Francisco Sanchez said last year that agreement on a framework for the United States to join TPP represents “a landmark accomplishment because it contains all of the elements of a modern trade accord.”  It eliminates all tariff and non-tariff trade barriers; takes a regional approach to promote development of production and supply chains; and eases regulatory red tape.  The White House’s senior official responsible for Latin America has also emphasized the importance of the Partnership.

The Administration for the most part has tried to sell the pact as a domestic economic issue – the argument being that more trade and harmonized regulations translate into more jobs – or as integral to a strategic focus on strengthening economic ties to the dynamic economies of Asia, rather than as a policy that has the potential to redefine economic relations with Latin America.  But lobbying on Capitol Hill has so far been ineffective, and Obama’s own Democratic Party has denied him the “fast-track authority” needed for an effective negotiation.  The Administration’s diplomatic strategy has not progressed smoothly either.  During Obama’s recent four-nation swing through Asia, he and Japanese Prime Minister Abe failed to sign an agreement widely seen as crucial for moving ahead with TPP.  Negotiators from all 12 TPP countries met in Vietnam last week, and – despite claims of progress – press reports generally suggest a gloomy prognosis for progress soon.

President Obama has made much of his “pivot” to Asia, and the push for TPP situates Latin America relations in Washington’s wider foreign policy agenda.  The emphasis on the TPP signals that liberalizing trade remains the core principle guiding U.S. thinking about economic relations in the hemisphere, in effect continuing a paradigm that has reigned for decades and that is embodied by proposals such as the now-abandoned Free Trade Area of the Americas.  Unable to secure broad South American buy-in for that U.S.-minted vision for economic cooperation, the administration seems to have settled on trying to work with a “coalition of the willing” comprised of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.  For governments elsewhere in the region, however, the not-so-particularly-new approach has elicited scant enthusiasm.  One could imagine ambitious proposals from Washington for hemispheric cooperation around energy, climate, infrastructure, technological innovation or even, eventually, labor market integration. But that would require visionary leadership, a commodity that is in strikingly short supply nowadays in the U.S. capital.  Rather than leading the articulation of a novel, shared agenda for a 21st century economic transformation of the Americas, Washington has chosen for now to repackage the last century’s prioritization of trade.

Little Promise of Progress on LA Issues in the U.S. Congress

U.S. Capitol Building / Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol / public domain

U.S. Capitol Building / Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol / public domain

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate appear likely to continue having diverse positions on elements of Latin America policy, but the parties are divided and the proposals – as has been said of the Obama Administration’s – appear piecemeal.  Neither the Democratic nor Republican Party is monolithic; both have diverse voices on the region – with strident internal differences registered on Cuba, Venezuela, the alleged role of Iran, and other contentious issues.  Congressional interest in Latin America tends to swirl around three interwoven areas:

  • On human rights, both parties have expressed concerns, but in very different contexts.  Conservatives continue to press the Administration to be tougher on Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and others.  Centrist and liberal-leaning members have urged reassessment of Washington’s position on human rights-related developments in Honduras and Mexico.
  • On security issues, there appears to be vague agreement to give priority to stemming transnational crime and promoting “citizen security” – and to programs that are spinoffs of Plan Colombia and the Iniciativa Mérida – but the Administration’s penchant for militaristic approaches and the concomitant need to cooperate with existing (and often corrupt) forces also draw considerable criticism.  Some members of Congress continue to insist that Iran is laying the groundwork for radical Islam and terrorism in Latin America, but the Administration, while remaining vigilant, has been reluctant to make that concern central to its programs.  Predictably, Congressmen close to former Colombian President Uribe oppose President Santos’s peace talks with the FARC.
  • The trade agenda is also contentious.  Both parties have advocates obsessed with securing trade accords as well as others who are skeptical or even hostile toward them.  With the “Free Trade Area of the Americas” vision of Presidents Bush (father) and Clinton long gone, some members continue to push for bilateral deals, but a three-region approach – linking Latin America, Asia, and the United States – seems to be gaining momentum.  Special deals under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Enforcement Act (ATPDEA) – already battered by ups and downs in U.S. bilateral relationships – have faded.

Issues like relations with Cuba and Venezuela perennially threaten the broader agenda on Latin America, and the intensity of rightwingers on those issues – including Cuban-American Senators Menendez (D‑NJ) and Rubio (R‑FL) and Representatives Ros-Lehtinen (R‑FL) and Albio Sires (D‑NJ) – tends to intimidate other members of the House and Senate.  Sen. Jeff Flake (R‑AZ) and Reps. Farr (D‑CA) and McGovern (D‑MA) have denounced the embargo, but the Committee chairs in both houses of Congress can block their legislation.  But other aspects of Latin America policy, especially on trade, may advance if the Administration pushes hard – or will wither if it does not.  The result will be a continued reliance on diverse security programs without a broader vision for Washington’s supposed partnership with the region.

 

Cumbritis and Prospects for Latin American Regionalism

By Carlos Portales
Washington College of Law and Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

UNASUR Cumbre by  Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

UNASUR Cumbre by Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America has experienced a veritable proliferation of presidential summits (cumbres) in recent years, an indication of how the hemisphere’s complex web of regional ties is shuffling the landscape of multilateral organizations. This trend was manifested in the Nov. 16-17 Iberoamerican Summit in Cadiz, Spain, followed in quick succession by summits for UNASUR on Nov. 30 and MERCOSUR on Dec. 7. The New Year will witness two summits in Santiago, Chile, the first between the European Union and Latin American and Caribbean States, the second among Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).  While sometimes useful in isolation, the cumulative impact of these meetings may be less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the region may be suffering a bout of cumbritis that is as distortive as it is productive.

The Cadiz summit reflected Spanish determination to sustain an Ibero-American bloc amidst its own profound crisis. Spain’s investments in Ibero-America, particularly in banking and telecommunications, are keeping alive important sectors of the Spanish economy. When the VI UNASUR Summit met in Lima two weeks later, the Presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and suspended Paraguay were all absent. Still, the meeting reaffirmed UNASUR’s role in political and military matters: UNASUR was active in the crisis in Paraguay, sent its first-ever electoral mission to Venezuela, the South American Defense Council provides coordination in defense industries and natural disaster responses, and aspires to support protection of human rights.

The following week in Brasilia, MERCOSUR formally incorporated Venezuela and signed an adhesion protocol with Bolivia. However, as Tom Long wrote in “Mercosur’s future: Whither economics?” on Dec. 18, MERCOSUR’s expanding breadth masks a lack of depth. The trade bloc has not agreed on a common external tariff, and integration has stalled as Argentina and Brazil adopted unilateral protectionist measures both during and after the global financial crisis. Though its market is growing, MERCOSUR’s ability to negotiate with third parties is limited. The countries most interested in boosting trade have split off on their own under the loose Pacific Alliance (PA), whose Presidents met on the sidelines during the Cadiz summit. Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru have set high targets for the reduction of customs duties and plan on reducing visa requirements for their citizens while already having FTAs with the US and Europe.  Chile and Peru have reached similar accords with China and other main Asian countries. However, the Alliance is primarily an informal gathering of free-trade-minded presidents, and so far institutionalization is minimal.

Brazil is leading South America-centered institutions (UNASUR and MERCOSUR) when it perceives that these suit its interests; The Venezuela-led ALBA has lost steam due in part to President Chavez’s illness; the PA process remains low-key and trade centered. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States risks irrelevance. Its robust human rights system has come under attack from ALBA countries and others, while four ranking members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have lambasted its leadership publically. The OAS may not be unsalvageable, and it remains potentially useful, though that potential will only be realized if the United States endeavors to support rather than undermine its efforts.

And Summits alone will not ensure the success of any of these multilateral forums: increasingly ubiquitous conversations among presidents can be effective for defusing immediate crises and for establishing guidelines for cooperation, but their long-term impact on policy coordination will be limited if they are not matched by analogous cross-national dialogue among key government ministries. The symptoms of chronic cumbritis lie in the failure of many presidential declarations to result in concrete advances in cooperation.

How Real is Anti-Americanism in Latin America?

Photo: WideAngleWandering | Flickr | Creative Commons

American University professor Max Friedman’s new book* offers a refreshingly original account of the sources of “anti-Americanism” in international affairs, with direct implications for U.S.-Latin America policy.  For Friedman, anti-Americanism is defined as a tendency – often ideological – to hate or resent the United States, driven primarily by cultural conflict or a rejection of democracy.  While not denying the existence of anti-Americanism, Friedman’s well-researched argument demonstrates that anti-Americanism is also a self-serving “myth” that U.S. policy makers repeat to each other, and to the U.S. public, in their unilateral pursuit of policy goals.  As the alter ego of American exceptionalism, it is too often a story we tell ourselves about the rest of the world, increasingly to our own detriment.

For Latin America, Friedman emphasizes the U.S. tendency during the Cold War to interpret regional governments as either “pro” or “anti-American,” maintaining a counterproductive “North-South perceptual divide.”  For example, Washington badly mischaracterized Guatemalan governments in 1954 and again in 1963 as communist puppets, despite significant support for the United States, which facilitated two U.S.-backed coups.  The installation of a dictatorship and subversion of democracy led to worldwide condemnation, the alienation of Latin American countries otherwise favorable toward the United States, and accusations of U.S. hypocrisy.  Even today, when the Obama Administration’s Latin America policy appears on auto-pilot, alarmists write about “the axis of anti-Americanism” in the region.  This theme is fueled by Washington’s isolation over its Cuba embargo and counternarcotics approach, its failure to deal effectively with the coup in Honduras in 2009, and its continued emphasis on free-trade zones with decidedly lukewarm governments pursuing other opportunities.

The United States has been slow to realize that its role in the region is diminishing, and Washington policy makers have not appreciated the varying economic, political, and security interests of the different countries in the region and the interplay among them.  These intraregional interests reflect motives or objectives not simply attributable to the U.S.-Latin American relationship.  But too often, as Friedman makes clear, the U.S. has dismissed Latin American concerns as latter day anti-Americanism, a manifestation of pathological hatred, irrationality, jealousy, resentment, illegitimate slander, pride, fear, inferiority, political immaturity, ideological intransigence, or an anti-modern hostility to free society.  And, as Friedman says, this “myth of anti-Americanism” promotes analytic failures and mistaken interpretations about regional conditions; it limits access to useful information from regional counterparts; equates criticism with hostility, and highlights an unwillingness to treat Latin American governments as independent actors; while it justifies faith in the superiority of U.S. thinking. As the U.S. seeks new footing in the region, none of this ultimately serves the national interest.

* Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations
by Max Paul Friedman
Cambridge University Press
ISBN-10: 0521683424
ISBN-13: 978-0521683425

FTA Dreaming: Promises to Expand Free Trade in the Hemisphere

Photo by: Starley Shelton | Flickr | Creative Commons

Although Latin America has not been an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has stated multiple times that he would promote hemispheric trade agreements.  In the second debate, he said, “I’m also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America. … I want to add more free trade agreements so we’ll have more trade.”  Romney did not specify, however, with which partners he would conclude trade agreements.  (A request to the Romney campaign for more information has not been answered.)  President Barack Obama did not comment on Romney’s promise, suggesting the president’s lack of focus on the region or calculus that voters simply don’t care.  Under Obama, the United States ratified pacts with Colombia and Panama, negotiated during the Bush administration.  The U.S. already had FTAs with Central America and the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.

While that would seem to leave a number of large economies, nearly all of them are unlikely partners. The most important remaining economies – Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay – are part of the Mercosur trading bloc.  Washington has refused to negotiate with them as a group, and the group prohibits members from signing bilateral accords.  Meanwhile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba, and several Caribbean nations have joined together specifically to counter U.S. proposals for free trade in the hemisphere.  The few remaining countries have tiny trading relations with the United States.

The idea of adding FTAs in Latin America looks quixotic.  Nevertheless, that is hardly an excuse for failing to improve trade relations short of comprehensive agreements.  There are important opportunities to deepen the United States’ most important trade relations with Canada and Mexico, as AU Professor Robert A. Pastor has argued.  Moreover, if the United States is willing to use the Andean Trade Preferences Act as a tool for development instead of a cudgel against Latin Americans it considers wayward, it could expand trade in ways that benefit all parties.  Likewise, trade problems have become outsized irritants in U.S. relations with Brazil and Argentina – to say nothing of the broader implications of U.S. “trade policy” with Cuba.  These problems have largely festered under Obama, and Romney’s promises of free trade agreements do not seem a serious proposal to correct them.