Ecuadorian ambassador Nathalie Cely Suarez: Obama should look to Latin America in second term

This week, President Obama is undertaking his first post-election trip abroad to Asia — a region of the world where U.S. foreign policy focused heavily during his first term. Yet, the president’s decisive electoral victory, in large part from Hispanic voters, signals an opportunity to jumpstart relations with Latin America — a region with clear and substantial economic and security interests for the United States in his second term.

One in six people in the United States are from Latin America, including some two million Ecuadoreans. This Latino community provides unique and powerful ties to a region that should mean more to U.S. interests than any other region in the world. More than 38 million American jobs depend on trade, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Latin America is a growing part of the equation. U.S trade with Ecuador alone is worth nearly $16 billion per year, which includes trade in fruits and vegetables as well as natural resources like petroleum, iron and steel, aluminum and organic chemicals.

The United States exports twice as much to Mexico as to China, three times more to Latin America than to all of Europe, and more to Chile and Colombia than to Russia. The United States continues to support trade agreement policy with Latin America, but there are countries without bilateral trade agreements, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Exploring new trade models is essential for these countries as well as their diasporas, whose contributions to the U.S. economy are deep, diverse and vital.

A great opportunity for President Obama is the upcoming lapse of the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), a free-trade pact created by the U.S. Congress in the 1990s to help drug-fighting efforts. Although Ecuador is not a drug producer, the ATPA has helped minimize the drug trade by creating jobs in legitimate agricultural production, such as fruits and vegetables. The program, a bipartisan success story, is an important tool of commercial exchange and security cooperation between the United States and Ecuador, and from a foreign policy perspective, it has helped institutionalize engagement with Ecuador, despite policy differences in other areas. 

The treaty is set to expire in July 2013, and with it, a host of popular Ecuadorean products like roses, broccoli, artichokes and more will lose their duty-free status in the U.S., raising prices and hurting jobs that depend on them in both countries, while also placing hemispheric security at greater risk. Hopefully, the Obama administration will reiterate its past support for the pact, and push for its renewal.

We also applaud the administration’s constant efforts to promote the contributions of immigrants to the U.S., and we look forward to seeing President Obama’s plan for comprehensive immigration reform. Latin American immigrants and their families are an important source of hemispheric economic and cultural enrichment and solidarity.

A world of opportunity awaits the United States to its south. The powerful linguistic and cultural ties between the United States and Latin America, and even our shared time zones, make economic and security cooperation that much easier. The millions of Latinos living in the United States are more than a voting bloc; they are the building blocks of a new model for growth throughout the hemisphere.

Nathalie Cely Suárez is Ecuador's ambassador to the United States.