President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Asia was totally overshadowed by the violence in Gaza, to the point that few of us paid any attention to it. But his visit to Asia may have major implications for Latin America in general, and for Cuba in particular.
First, at a Nov. 20 meeting with Asian leaders in Cambodia, Obama agreed to conclude by the end of 2013 negotiations to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a giant free trade area of Asian and Western hemisphere Pacific rim countries that would become the world’s biggest and most ambitious commercial bloc.
While negotiations for the TPP were already under way, Obama’s Asia trip accelerated the agenda. The next round of negotiations is to take place Jan. 3 in New Zealand, and the deal is scheduled to be signed by October next year. It may be ratified and implemented as early as mid-2014.
The proposed TPP bloc would include Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru, and Japan — the third largest economy in the world, South Korea, and Colombia also may join.
Although U.S. officials deny it, the TPP is, among other things, an Obama administration effort to counter China’s growing economic weight on both sides of the Pacific.
“This is huge,” says David Lewis, a trade expert with the Manchester Trade consulting firm in Washington, D.C. “It’s the biggest trade agreement we have seen since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, and it’s going to give huge trade advantages to member countries over those that are not part of it.”
This could lead to a de facto partition of Latin America into a group of Pacific coast countries with free trade agreements with the United States and Asia, and a bloc of Atlantic countries that are big exporters of raw materials to China but will not have preferential trade deals with other Asian markets, experts say.
Mexico, whose President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto is expected to officially endorse Mexico’s participation in the TPP during his first meeting with Obama today, sees TPP as a unique opportunity to update its NAFTA agreement with the United States and Canada, and, just as importantly, to gain preferential trade access to Japan’s huge economy.
Japan has not announced its official request to join the TPP, because of resistance from its farmers and other industries. But Naoki Tanaka, head of the Tokyo-based Center for International Public Policy Studies, tells me that Japan is most likely to announce its formal request to join TPP after its Dec. 16 parliamentary elections.
The second interesting thing about Obama’s trip to Asia was his visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, a military dictatorship that — much like Cuba — has long been the subject of U.S. sanctions and criticism for its lack of fundamental freedoms.
The fact that Obama decided to visit Myanmar in response to small but concrete steps toward a political opening, such as releasing well-known political prisoners and allowing free elections of lower-level officials, can be read as a sign that Obama could make a similarly historic visit to Cuba if that country’s military regime makes some moves toward a political opening.
Asked about the potential Myanmar-Cuba analogy, Roberta Jacobson, head of the State Department’s Western Hemisphere affairs bureau, told me that Myanmar “is a country that has been very closed and very repressive, and that has begun to open up. We are not immune to that change.” She added, “If it happens in Cuba, we are going to respond, like we did in Burma.”
My opinion: Both the TPP and a U.S. opening to Cuba — most likely after Fidel Castro’s death — are likely to materialize in the not-so-distant future. Obama will try to make both things happen during his second term. He will have his legacy in mind, and these are two issues that could end up high in history books.
Unlike previous trade agreements such as the Colombia, Panama and South Korea free trade deals, which were Bush administration leftovers that Obama lukewarmly embraced, the TPP is his creation. And an Obama trip to Cuba in response to some democratic changes on the island would be historic, especially after more than five decades of U.S. sanctions against the island’s dictatorship.
Perhaps, one day historians will look back at Obama’s recent visit to Asia as a signal of things to come in Latin America.