Los Angeles Post-Examiner / February 19, 2015
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON — Rep. Tony Cárdenas, a Democrat who represents California’s 29th Congressional District, urged fellow Latinos at a Washington diplomatic conference to push for greater trade relations with the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Feb. 4 event — “Strengthening Relations in the Western Hemisphere through Exchange” — attracted about 350 people to the headquarters of the Organization of American States. Sponsored by Global Ties U.S., it coincided with the 75th anniversary of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.
Cárdenas told delegates that six million U.S. jobs rely on trade with Mexico, and that products manufactured in Mexico contain four times as many U.S. components as those made in China. In addition, wages are 37 percent higher in export-related industries than in the rest of the Mexican economy.
“The United States and all countries south of us should and need to do business with each other,” said the congressman. “We should pay attention to each other. It’s in our own interest, and I dare say, there’s no need to go to China when you have Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia and Chile. There are so many opportunities.”
Cárdenas, 51, is one of 11 children of Mexican immigrants who settled in California’s San Joaquín Valley in the late 1940s. He was first elected to the California State Assembly in 1996, went on to serve three terms in that body and was later elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
After 16 years in public office, the young man made history, becoming the first Latino elected to represent the San Fernando Valley as a member of Congress.
“I believe that in our subliminal psyche, it became uncool to do business with Latinos. Growing up, people tried to convince me it was not cool to be a Latino. And I wasn’t the only one,” he recalled. “But because I was able to overcome those lies, it wasn’t until I was 31 that a Latino activist hoodwinked me into running for office.”
Cárdenas said boosting trade with Latin America is among his top priorities.
“I want California to be a hub for continued innovation with Latin America. As a Latino former business owner, I want to see Latinos succeed not only in my community but throughout the hemisphere,” he said, complaining that Americans are basically “ignoring” the 30-plus countries to its south — even as China grabs all the attention.
“When I was on the city council for 10 years, I had business people come up to me and say, ‘I want to go to China.’ Then I’d ask them why China, and they had absolutely no idea,” said Cárdenas. “In this country, for too many businesses it became cool and sexy to go to China. Well, I’ve got to say, Sofia Vergara is from Colombia, and she’s pretty cool and sexy.”
Cárdenas vowed that as long as he’s in Congress is mission will be “to make dreams come true for Americans all the people to the south of us. We have the resources. We can and should be the dominant region of the world, if we do what is right.”
Besides Cárdenas, other speakers included James Jones, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico; Thomas Pickering, former undersecretary for political affairs; John Feeley, principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez; and Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas).
“What this administration wants is a Western Hemisphere that is democratic, prosperous, middle-class and able to use the fruits of its prosperity and growth for all its citizens, not just a select few,” said Feeley, whose overseas assignments include Mexico City, Santo Domingo and Bogotá. .
But continuing violence — especially in Central America — is eating away at that prosperity, even in full-fledged democracies.
“Citizen security undergirds any society’s potential for happiness,” he said. “If you’re afraid to go out at night, if your small business is being extorted, you’re not happy. Colombia has shown us how to handle this, but still has a long way to go.”
So does the U.S., he added, “with its Staten Island chokeholds and Fergusons” — a reference to two of the most glaring recent incidents of police brutality against blacks.
Jon Clifton, managing director of Gallup World Poll, said measurements such as per-capita GDP and unemployment are often poor indicators of true happiness. And even though incomes have risen dramatically, Latin Americans are no happier than in the past.
“The Middle East is number one in the world for negative emotions, but number two is Latin America,” said Clifton, whose company’s Gallup World Poll covers 160 countries representing 98 percent of the world’s adult population. “In Latin America, there are very high negative emotions, driven by things like corruption. We can see it in our database. That is one of the single biggest drivers of pain and worry.”