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KAI RYSSDAL: Free trade made its way to the House of Representatives today. Lawmakers are voting on a deal with Peru that the Bush Administration signed a year-and-a-half ago. The White House is still waiting for Congress to decide on trade agreements with Panama and Colombia.
Back during the 2000 presidential campaign, George Bush promised to make Latin America -- and this is a quote -- "a fundamental commitment" of his presidency. Andres Oppenheimer and others say that commitment's been honored mostly in the breach. He writes about Latin America for the Miami Herald. Mr. Oppenheimer welcome to the program.
Andres Oppenheimer: Thanks for having me.
RYSSDAL: Do me a favor and rank free trade, or trade in general, on the list of things bubbling about in the U.S.-Latin American relationship.
Oppenheimer: Well, it's a big, big thing, because Latin American countries that have had free trade agreements with the U.S., like Mexico, Chile, Central American countries most recently, have substantially increased their exports. Now, some people say it's been bad for their agricultural businesses. The truth is, it has been bad for some isolated cases of agricultural businesses. But if you look at Mexico, for instance, free trade almost quadrupled over the past -- since 1994. So, looking at it from Latin America's perspective, it's been a great thing.
RYSSDAL: Look at it from Washington's perspective for me for a moment, though. What happens if Washington doesn't get the free-trade formula right?
Oppenheimer: Well, first of all, Venezuela is making a big, big move to sort of become the major regional power in Latin America, as you know. President Hugo Chavez would love to see the U.S. influence decline in the region. But there are other players -- in the book I talk extensively about China. This is sort of not very well-known in the U.S., but in Latin America, wherever you go, you see a growing Chinese influence -- mostly trade-wise. The Chinese are buying Argentine soybeans like crazy, Brazilian soybeans, Chilean copper, Peruvian iron ore, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
RYSSDAL: As you traveled through Latin America in reporting this book -- and you went out to talk to people, not government officials and not high-ranking corporate people, but the people who are actually doing the buying and selling -- are they interested in having a trade relationship with the United States?
Oppenheimer: Of course. People in Latin America know that the U.S. is the biggest market in the world, and they want to sell more goods to the U.S. In some cases, they find trade barriers. For instance, the countries in South America -- Argentina, Brazil, the agricultural countries -- face problems exporting their agricultural goods because of farm subsidies in this country. Other countries want free-trade agreements, like Peru today, and find that the U.S. Congress is reluctant to approve them.
RYSSDAL: You mention that the Chinese need Latin America to fuel its own economic growth. Does the United States need Latin America for the same reason?
Oppenheimer: Well, the U.S. needs Latin America perhaps more than ever. The United States exports $225 billion-worth of goods annually to Latin America. That's incredibly a lot more than the $55 billion we export to China, or the $10 billion we export to India.
RYSSDAL: Let me ask you about the subtitle to this book -- it's called "Saving the Americas: The Dangerous Decline of Latin America and What the U.S. Must Do." What about what Latin America' must do?
Oppenheimer: Latin America must do a lot of things, and I spend a big chunk of the book talking about that. It has to reduce its absurd subsidies, it has to become more business friendly, it has to attract more investments, it has to improve its education standards -- and first of all, it has to stop blaming others for its own shortcomings. There's no shortage of criticism for Latin America in the book, believe me.
RYSSDAL: Andres Oppenheimer is a syndicated columnist with the Miami Herald. His newest book is called "Saving the Americas: The Dangerous Decline of Latin America and What the U.S. Must Do." Mr. Oppenheimer, thanks so much for your time.
Oppenheimer: Thanks, Kai.