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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

U.S.-Latin America Trade: Recent Trends and Policy Issues

J. F. Hornbeck
Specialist in International Trade and Finance

Trade is one of the more enduring issues in contemporary U.S.-Latin America relations. Latin America is far from the largest U.S. regional trade partner, but historically is the fastest growing one. Between 1998 and 2009, total U.S. merchandise trade (exports plus imports) with Latin America grew by 82% compared to 72% for Asia (driven largely by China), 51% for the European Union, 221% for Africa, and 64% for the world. Mexico composed 11.7% of total U.S. merchandise trade in 2009 and is the largest Latin American trade partner, accounting for 58% of the region's trade with the United States, the result of a long history of economic integration between the two countries. By contrast, the rest of Latin America together makes up only 8.3% of U.S. trade, leaving significant room for growth. 

Latin American countries have made noted progress in trade liberalization, reducing tariffs significantly and entering into their own regional agreements. This development presented an opportunity for the United States, which has supported deeper regional integration, in part because it has been widely viewed as beneficial for both economic and foreign policy reasons. The United States has implemented comprehensive bilateral or plurilateral reciprocal trade agreements with most of its important trade partners in Latin America. These include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), and bilateral FTAs with Chile and Peru. FTAs with Panama and Colombia have been signed but not implemented, pending congressional action. 

Many of the largest economies in South America, however, are not part of U.S. FTAs and have resisted a region-wide agreement, the Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA), in part because it represented an extension of the same trade model used by the United States in bilateral agreements. Countries south of the Caribbean Basin have been reluctant to enter into such a deal because it does not meet their primary negotiation objectives. Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela are less compelled to capitulate to U.S. demands because they are far less dependent on the U.S. economy than countries in the Caribbean Basin, do not rely on previously existing unilateral preferential arrangements, and would have to redefine their subregional trade pacts. 

The result in the Western Hemisphere has been an expansive system of disparate bilateral and plurilateral agreements, which are widely understood to be a second best solution for reaping the benefits of trade liberalization. Alternatives to a new round of currently unpopular FTAs are being debated. It has been suggested, for example, that FTAs be revised, enhancing controversial environment, labor, and other chapters. The response in Latin, however, has been tepid. Another option is to move incrementally toward harmonization or convergence of the vast array of trade arrangements in the Western Hemisphere by adopting administrative solutions where possible, without renegotiation. One example is to expand rules of origin and cumulation provisions. 

With respect to FTA implementation, another critical issue is the provision of trade capacity building and other technical assistance to address supply-side constraints in areas such as port and customs operations modernization, infrastructure investment, technology enhancement, and development of common standards in general. These are often major constraints to the more fluid movement of goods in Latin American countries. It is uncertain what the next step in Western Hemisphere economic integration may be, and these alternatives may be difficult to implement and monitor. But at the margin, they could provide benefits in light of the apparent hiatus in moving ahead with either a multilateral or hemispheric trade accord.

Date of Report: June 25, 2010
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: 98-840
Price: $29.95

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