President Barack Obama has never been terribly interested in Latin America, but the new political winds in Argentina, Venezuela and the latest events in Brazil offer him a golden opportunity to improve U.S. relations with the region.
Last week's inauguration of center-right President Mauricio Macri in Argentina after 12 years of leftist anti-American governments, alongside the landslide opposition victory in Venezuela's Dec. 6 legislative elections have changed South America's political map. Venezuela's "Bolivarian" revolution and its political allies are now on the defensive, after more than a decade of dominating the region's political agenda.
And Brazil, which until now was an unconditional ally of Venezuela, is gradually shifting away from its leftist foreign policy.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is facing an impeachment in Congress, and badly needs the support from legislators who are critical of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's abuses. The last thing she wants is to further antagonize the very members of congress whose votes may decide whether she stays in office.
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Amid this backdrop, Obama should make a trip to Latin America in the first half of 2016, and offer U.S. support to Macri and other presidents, while seeking to counter-balance China's growing influence in the region.
Granted, Obama will be a lame-duck president next year, but he could do a lot to improve U.S.-Latin America ties. Former President George W. Bush made a visit to five countries in the region near the end of his second term in 2007, which helped solve pending problems with several of them.
Obama could start his trip in Mexico, where he could send a powerful message to the world that Mexican immigrants to the United States have been a big asset to this country.
He could draw attention to fact that China has surpassed Mexico as the biggest source of immigrants to the United States, and that more Mexican immigrants are returning to their home country than crossing the border to the United States. By doing that, Obama would be helping his own Democratic Party debunk Donald Trump's xenophobic rhetoric, in case Trump is still running for office by then.
In Mexico, Obama could also seek ways to maximize the integration of the Alliance of the Pacific economic bloc -- consisting of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile -- to the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade area that has just been signed by 12 Asian and American countries. Obama could explore indirect ways of helping Colombia, which is not a TPP partner, to indirectly benefit from TPP through its Alliance of the Pacific partners.
Obama's trip to Argentina would be a strong signal of support to Macri, who has inherited a bankrupt country and badly needs to restore international confidence to get much-needed investments.
It would also be a way for Obama to make up for his mistake of last week, when he sent a relatively low-level delegation headed by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to Macri's inauguration. Macri's inaugural ceremonies were attended by eight presidents and several vice-presidents and foreign ministers.
Obama could also stop in Uruguay, where President Tabare Vasquez is a more serious and potentially friendlier counterpart than previous President Jose Mujica. And the U.S. president could make a stop in the English-speaking Caribbean, to offer Caribbean countries more technical help to solve their energy shortages now that bankrupt Venezuela is reducing its Petrocaribe oil subsidies to the region.
U.S. officials have already said that Obama wants to visit Cuba next year, presumably to promote his legacy as the U.S. president who re-established diplomatic ties with that country's regime after six decades of confrontation. Asked whether Obama will go to Argentina, U.S. officials tell me there are no concrete plans for that trip, but there is a fifty-percent chance that he may do so.
My opinion: Obama would make a big mistake by going to Cuba without visiting Argentina, a much bigger country with a democratically elected president who has vowed to leave behind his predecessor's sterile ideological battles, and focus on prosperity. Let's hope that Obama doesn't blow it -- like he did by sending an envoy who went unnoticed among the foreign dignitaries attending Macri's inauguration -- and starts refocusing U.S. attention on Latin America.
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Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: aoppenheimermiamiherald.com.