By Vice President Joe Biden
Last week, during a five-day trip through Latin America and the Caribbean, I visited a cut-flower farm outside Bogota, Colombia, an hour's drive from downtown that would have been impossibly dangerous 10 years ago. Along the way I passed office parks, movie theaters and subdivisions, interspersed with small ranches and family businesses. At the flower farm, one-quarter of the workers are female heads of households. The carnations and roses they were clipping would arrive in U.S. stores within days, duty free.
What I saw on the flower farm was just one sign of the economic blossoming in the year since a U.S. free-trade agreement with Colombia went into force. Over that period, American exports to the country are up 20%.
The U.S. experience with Colombia reflects a larger economic boom across the Western Hemisphere that offers many exciting partnership opportunities for American business. In Rio de Janeiro, I met with Brazilian and American business leaders--representing the aerospace, energy, construction and manufacturing sectors--who laid out a remarkable vision for prosperity that spans the Americas. As these business leaders made clear, Latin America today is a region transformed. Elections that once were exceptions are now largely the norm. In a growing number of places, conflicts between left and right have given way to peaceful, practical governance. And in the process, Latin America's middle class has grown 50% in the past decade alone. By some estimates, it is nearly the size of China's.
There is enormous potential--economically, politically and socially--for the U.S. in its relations with countries of the Western Hemisphere. And so the Obama administration has launched the most sustained period of U.S. engagement with the Americas in a long, long time--including the president's travel to Mexico and Costa Rica last month; my own recent trip to Colombia, Trinidad, and Brazil; Secretary of State Kerry's participation in the Organization of American States' annual meeting in Guatemala; the president of Chile's visit to Washington this week and a planned visit to Washington by the president of Peru. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff arrives in Washington in October for the first state visit of the second term.
As leaders across the region work to lift their citizens out of poverty and to diversify their economies from commodity-led growth, the U.S. believes that the greatest promise--for Americans and for our neighbors--lies in deeper economic integration and openness.
The process is further along than you might think. Not only is the U.S. deepening what is already a trillion-dollar trading relationship with Mexico and Canada--we also have free-trade agreements that stretch nearly continuously from Canada to Chile.
One of the most promising developments is the year-old Alliance of the Pacific among Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico. This pact, involving four of the region's fastest-growing countries, now has nations across the world seeking to participate or to play a positive supporting role. We're one of those nations. By committing to lowering trade barriers and integrating diplomatic and commercial interests, alliance members are showing that pragmatism, not ideology, is the secret to success. The effort also serves as a reminder of the deep connections between our enhanced engagement in this hemisphere and our Asia-Pacific rebalance.
For Brazil, as for the U.S., one of the most important frontiers is energy. From biofuels to deep-water oil reserves to shale gas to hydroelectric, Brazil is energy-rich, and that has tremendous implications globally. Brazil already is a leading expert in renewables and deep-water extraction, but both of our countries can advance further if we work together. I know from my meeting with President Rousseff that Brazil is equally committed to an energy partnership.
Ultimately, all of these economic opportunities rest on democratic protections and citizen security. Through the Inter American Democratic Charter, the nations of the hemisphere committed to promote and defend representative democracy; this commitment remains as important as ever to the success of the Americas. And from Mexico to the Caribbean to Colombia, we remain invested in long-term security partnerships. The U.S. will continue to stand by Colombia as it seeks to bring an end to the longest-running conflict in the Americas and inspires other countries in the region to overcome their own challenges.
That's going to require some honest conversations, like the one that will take place next week at the OAS General Assembly on drug policy. Similarly, many countries have serious concerns about weapons coming from the U.S. and are angry about our criminal-deportation policy for its lack of transparency. We won't shy away from these kinds of difficult discussions.
Here at home, we need to reform our immigration system because it is the right thing to do for our own country. But it also will strengthen our standing in the hemisphere. Success in international relations, like any relationship, comes down to respect. And fully realizing the potential of these new relationships requires treating people from other nations living inside our borders with respect.
The changes under way invite the U.S. to look at Latin America and the Caribbean in a very different way. The defining question for U.S. policy is no longer "what can we do for the Americas?" It is "what can we do together?"
In the 1990s, we imagined a Europe that is whole, free and at peace. Today, I believe we can credibly envision an Americas that is solidly middle-class, secure and democratic--from the Arctic Circle to the Tierra del Fuego and everywhere in between.