Ever since the end of the Cold War, the US forgot a great deal about Latin America, focusing on the dismemberment of the USSR. The region was only remembered when the war on drugs was too much to bear, and with the occasional free trade talk.
Indeed, it was just a matter of feeling safe in the shared hemisphere that made the US look elsewhere throughout its history: If there is no one to question US hegemony, then let’s look for conflict elsewhere. This, of course, was answered by classical geopolitics: The world shatter-belt region was transferred from Eurasia to the Middle East, and that has been the place where the US has its gaze fixed for a long time, even having scholars saying that looking elsewhere could be detrimental, and that Latin America and Africa need not distract geopolitical interests.
The Obama administration started with a very positive message about changing US-Latin American relations, and how there should be partnerships among equals (perhaps it was a slick way of saying “no more aid for you, we have problems at home”) and Obama was bent on listening what Latin American leaders had to say.
Alas, it was too good to be true: US-Latin American relations seemed to go back to oblivion (remember The Forgotten Continent by Michael Reed?) as there seemed to be a lot of action all around the world. It seemed impossible to focus on your closest neighbors (perhaps even Canada was left aside?). If it wasn’t Iraq or Afghanistan, it was Wikileaks. Now, it’s the turmoil and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, and then Japan’s catastrophe. So, there never will be a “good time” to focus again in the region.
Meanwhile, East Asia is setting foot in Latin America, especially China. This is quite worrying: The East Asian economies need commodities and Latin America can be quite the supplier, without having in mind that this may yet lead to further the so-called “resource curse” and fuel environmentally unfriendly economies.
The US has been displaced as number one trade partner by China for some Latin American countries (in others, China is second). Quite ironic: US companies do business in East Asia regardless of Human Rights and environmental situations but pressure groups put that argument against deepening relations with Latin American economies. Even more ironic is that, as Michael Mann said, many drug-related issues (which are the fuel for violence in Latin America) are, to a great extent, caused by the demand for drugs inside the US.
In the past decade, Colombia received a lot of attention because of the war on drugs and the war on terror, which overlaps to a great extent. Nevertheless, the FTA has been long delayed and now the budget for Plan Colombia is getting smaller. In addition, Obama’s (first ever) trip to South America doesn’t include Colombia because, as Shannon K. O’Neil (Council on Foreign Relations) argues, there is no good news to bring to the Colombian President regarding the trade agreement. I would say that there is no good news, period.
The “rise of the rest” that worries many analysts doesn’t seem to get things going inside the government. As Joseph Nye wrote, “The greatest danger to [the US] is not debt, political paralysis, or China; it is parochialism, turning away from the openness that is the source of its strength and resting on its laurels.” One day (although it may be quite far away), it will be too late to react and strengthen the ties with the hemisphere.