Strong economy, dollar and Cuba breakthrough give US a chance to regain clout in Latin America

Economic Indicators Associated Press

In Mexico City, an auto parts company expects to ride a resurgent U.S. auto industry to $1 billion in annual revenue by 2016.

Continue Reading Below

In Bogota, Colombia, a company that makes plastic water valves is hoping an expansion into the United States will super-charge its exports.

In Brazil, firms that make ceramic tiles predict they'll beat last year's robust sales abroad, thanks to a strong U.S. dollar that gives them a price advantage in the United States.

Across Latin America, companies increasingly are looking north for business. The prospect of tighter commercial ties across the Americas has handed the United States a chance to reclaim some of the regional economic and political clout it lost to a surging China over the past decade. President Barack Obama will be given a big opportunity to re-engage more vigorously with the new regional landscape at the Summit of the Americas Friday and Saturday in Panama City.

"It's a perfect time for the U.S. to reset in Latin America," says Kevin Gallagher, professor of international relations at Boston University.

As its economy slows, China needs less Venezuelan oil, Chilean copper and other Latin American commodities. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is nearly back to full strength after a long, slow comeback from the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Continue Reading Below

Currency swings are also pulling Latin American companies north. The U.S. dollar is up 41 percent against the Brazilian real, 34 percent against the Colombian peso and 15 percent against the Mexican peso since June 30. A strong dollar makes Latin American products cheaper in the United States, giving the region's exporters a competitive edge.

What's more, Obama's diplomatic opening to Cuba removed a major source of tension between the U.S. and the region.

To be sure, no one expects China to disappear from Latin America. It will remain as a major trading partner and financier. Chinese state-owned banks last year loaned $22 billion to Latin America, more than traditional lenders the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank combined. And many Latin American countries remain wary of the United States, which has a history of interfering in regional politics.

— HOW CHINA ROSE IN LATIN AMERICA

China has rapidly gained economic influence in Latin America. In 2000, it absorbed barely 1 percent of the goods Latin America exported. By 2013, China's share had risen past 10 percent. Over the same period, the U.S. share dropped from 58 percent in 2000 to less than 40 percent, as China and other developing countries absorbed more Latin American products, according to United Nations figures analyzed by the Brookings Institution.

China's trade with Latin America has been narrowly focused: Raw materials account for nearly 60 percent of the region's exports to China, high tech products less than 5 percent, the UN says.

Chinese demand for raw materials such as oil, copper and iron ore set off a commodities boom in Latin America. But it was a mixed blessing. As Latin American commodities surged out of the region, cheap Chinese products — toys, clothing, shoes — flooded in, putting pressure on local manufacturers.

China's economy is now slowing. The Chinese economy grew 7.4 percent last year, the slowest since 1990, and is projected to decelerate further this year. China's slowdown — along with economic stagnation in Europe and Japan — has hammered commodities prices and the Latin American economies that had grown dependent on them. Brazil, struggling to emerge from a recession, will likely grow just 1 percent this year. Venezuela's economy sank 3 percent last year and is likely to fall another 2 percent in 2015. Argentina's economy contracted 1.5 percent last year and could drop another 0.3 percent this year, the World Bank says.

"The Chinese lose influence because they're just not buying that much stuff anymore," says Harold Trinkunas, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The end of the commodities boom means Latin American companies will have to change their focus to making things, not just pulling raw materials out of the earth.

Enter the United States: Nearly 70 percent of Latin American exports to the United States are manufactured goods, not raw materials; more than 20 percent are high tech, the UN says.

"The growth of the U.S. currency means there is more demand from that country for imported products," says Brazilian Foreign Trade Secretary Daniel Godinho.

— LOOKING NORTH FOR BUSINESS

Increasingly, Latin American firms express high hopes for the U.S. market.

Gary Spulak, president of the U.S. subsidiary of the Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer, predicts that the U.S. will account for more than 50 percent of global demand for aircraft over the next 10 years.

PCP Plasticos, a Bogota water valve manufacturer, plans to take advantage of the strong dollar and expand in the United States. If the PCP succeeds, exports could rise to 70 percent of the company's production, twice the current level.

The construction arm of the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht hopes to increase U.S. revenue from $400 million last year to $600 million within five years, says Gilberto Neves, CEO of Odebrecht USA.

Mexican auto parts supplier Rassini is expecting strong U.S. demand to pull revenue over $1 billion by 2016, up from $894 million last year.

Brazilian tile manufacturers enjoyed 9 percent export growth last year and expect even faster growth this year.

"The devaluation of the real against the dollar makes us more competitive," says Antonio Kieling, president of the Brazilian Ceramic Tile Manufacturers Industry Association.

________________________________________________

AP Writers Joshua Goodman in Panama City, Adriana Gomez Licon in Rio de Janeiro and Jacobo Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this story.

Follow Paul Wiseman on Twitter at https://twitter.com/PaulWisemanAP