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Manuel Rocha, managing director of The Globis Group, explored the prospects for U.S.-Latin American relations in a keynote speech May 16 at the Latin American Business Conference.

Manuel Rocha

The Americas in the age of Obama

Politics and business take center stage at the Kellogg School’s 2009 Latin American Business Conference

By Sandra Guy

5/20/2009 - President Barack Obama worked his well-known public-relations magic at the recent Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

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But Obama has yet to show he will return Latin America to prominence on America’s list of priorities, said business and diplomatic leader Manuel Rocha, addressing more than 100 attendees May 16 at the Latin American Business Conference at the Kellogg School.

Rocha was one of two keynote speakers at the annual conference, organized by Kellogg students to highlight business and economic issues in Latin America. Earlier that day, Lywal Salles Filho, senior managing director at Itau Unibanco, opened the event with a talk on private banking.

The event also featured panels on investing in Latin America, adapting global brands in local Latin American markets, and creating technology entrepreneurship in Latin America.

During his talk, Rocha detailed the history of U.S. free-trade negotiations to explain how Latin America has fallen off the United States’ priority list.

A grand dream of free trade between the United States and all of Latin America — a goal first envisioned during the Clinton administration in 1994 — began unraveling after Brazil raised the legitimate issue of agricultural resources in 2003, Rocha said. Now, he observed, Latin America is divided between those friendly to the United States and those hostile to it.

Obama would have to “do what Nixon did with China and what Bush and Clinton did with Vietnam” to change the United States’ relationship with Latin America, said Rocha, a 25-year veteran of diplomatic posts abroad and in Washington D.C. Now managing director of The Globis Group, Rocha participated in high-level planning during the Mexican bailout, the invasion of Haiti and U.S. migration accords with Cuba.

Though the Obama administration has lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel and send money to their homeland, Rocha saw the change as a domestic move rather than one that would alter diplomatic or foreign policy, especially since the broader Cuba trade embargo remains.

“The administration’s policies toward Cuba will determine whether Latin America will continue to be divided,” Rocha said.

Prior to Rocha’s talk, eZuza COO Eric Perez-Grovas offered blunt advice to students attending the conference. During a panel discussion on technology entrepreneurship in Latin America, he encouraged students to learn from their mistakes when starting a business; to start making decisions and then executing them; and to focus on hiring the right people, largely by listening to one’s gut.

“The middle class in Latin America provides lots of opportunities (for entrepreneurs),” added Perez-Grovas.