Byline: Jose R. Cardenas, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
In each of the three recent presidential debates, Republican challenger Mitt Romney pointedly extolled the potential benefits of greater U.S. trade with Latin America. This was neither a throwaway line nor a sop to Hispanic voters. It was a keen recognition that a region neglected by the Obama administration in its first term can be a key to the United States' economic recovery.
One hopes President Obama will similarly come to recognize the abounding economic opportunities in our own neighborhood to help jump-start the U.S. economy and create more jobs here at home. Looking beyond the noise and radicalism of Venezuela's Hugo ChEivez and his populist ilk, a number of important countries have enjoyed a recent history of exemplary political and economic management that has enabled their economies not only to weather the international economic downturn, but to thrive.
Indeed, as the roots of democracy and the rule of law continue to take hold, countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia have been at the forefront in modernizing their economies, liberalizing trade, opening their economies to investment and becoming more competitive overall.
The numbers tell the story. Since 2003, an estimated 73 million Latin Americans have risen out of poverty. Moreover, between 2003 and 2010, the average Latin American income increased by more than 30 percent, meaning that today, nearly one-third of the region's population of nearly 570 million is considered middle class. In just the next five years, regional economies are projected to expand by one-third.
This is good news for U.S. business. It means millions of new consumers with an ingrained affinity for U.S. goods and services.
Mr. Obama recognized the linkage between exports and more jobs at home when he launched his National Export Initiative in 2010 with the goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014. After some early enthusiasm, however, interest in the issue has waned.
With the election over, there is no reason why the White House cannot embrace the opportunities to our south and be a better partner to neighbors who share our values and to whom we are bound by close historical, cultural, familial and geographic ties.
A strategic economic pivot to Latin America could involve three immediate actions:
1. Mr. Obama should initiate negotiations to integrate the 11 existing free-trade agreements the United States has with countries in our hemisphere. …