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While Washington Sleeps

Beijing expands its influence in Latin America.

Jan 25, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 18 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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Clinton then spoke of Iran in much harsher terms, denouncing the Iranian regime as the world’s chief terror sponsor and warning that it would be “a really bad idea” for Latin American countries to embrace Ahmadinejad & Co. “If people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them,” she added.

As Clinton indicated, Tehran’s agenda in Latin America—particularly the strategic partnership with Chávez that has undermined international sanctions against Iran and helped Hezbollah establish a presence in Venezuela—is far more worrisome than Beijing’s. Still, given all the uncertainty about China’s global and regional intentions and its support for brutal dictatorial governments (Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Burma), its headlong rush into the Western Hemisphere should raise at least some concerns, especially as Latin American officials are frustrated with Washington’s lack of engagement in the region.

When President Bush took office in 2001, he talked of forming a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Today, Congress won’t even ratify bilateral free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. The Obama administration insists that it wants to finalize these deals, but Democratic lawmakers are not cooperating. While Obama has promoted greater military cooperation with Colombia, it seems that the labor unions have effectively been given control of U.S. trade policy, which explains why the president has been unable to make any real progress on hemispheric trade, and indeed why he has made several protectionist mistakes (such as canceling a trucking program with Mexico).

Meanwhile, the Chinese keep increasing their economic activities in the region. Despite its apparent “diplomatic truce” with Taiwan, one of China’s long-term strategic goals in Latin America is to encourage countries that still have formal relations with Taipei (such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Paraguay) to end those relations and “transfer” official recognition to Beijing. China refuses to have official relations with countries that recognize Taiwan.

The Chinese push into the Americas is no cause for panic—after all, Latin American trade with China has raised living standards and promoted GDP growth around the region—but it should compel U.S. policymakers to reinvigorate Washington’s -commitment to hemispheric trade liberalization. It is quite discouraging to think that China’s Communist rulers are more enthusiastic than the U.S. Congress about trading with Latin America.

Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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