Andres Oppenheimer | Kerry’s unfinished Latin American agenda

When I asked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry why the Obama administration has paid so little attention to Latin America, he disputed the premise of the question, while admitting that the biggest U.S. initiative in the region — a massive student exchange program — is behind schedule.

In a wide-ranging interview that he gave me for The Miami Herald, Kerry also rejected criticism that he has spent little time in the region.

According to the State Department website, Kerry has made 19 foreign trips since taking office in February, but only two of them were to Latin America.

Kerry has visited 36 countries as secretary of state, but he has not visited Mexico, a country that for several reasons — they include trade, immigration, drugs, energy and the environment — is one of the most important U.S. relationships in the world.

Asked about the little time he has spent in Latin America, Kerry said that critics who interpret that as a symptom of little interest in the region “are dead wrong.” He added that “one of the reasons why I’ve made 19 trips somewhere else and only two to Latin America is that we have a very strong relationship with Latin America, which is running, I think, very effectively.”

Kerry explained that he has had to deal with crises in Iran and Syria, among others. “There’s more turmoil in these other parts of the world, where we’ve got some immediate crises,” he said.

He stressed that he has visited Brazil and Colombia, and that he had to cancel a scheduled visit to Mexico because of an emergency. “But we plan to go,” he said.

On the more substantive issue of whether the Obama administration has pursued an ambitious policy toward Latin America, Kerry noted that the United States has 12 free trade agreements with countries in the region, including one with Mexico and Canada.

While emphasizing that Washington already has vibrant business ties with Latin America, he suggested that these separate commercial agreements could be strengthened and expanded.

But Kerry admitted that the most ambitious Obama administration initiative in the region — the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program to double the number of exchange students between the United States and Latin America by 2020 — is behind schedule.

“It’s not where we want it to be,” Kerry told me, referring to the fact that there are about 67,000 Latin American students in U.S. colleges and 45,000 U.S. students in Latin American colleges.

“We want to do better,” he said. “We have to double that to meet the president’s goal.”

According to a recent State Department “Open Doors” report, the number of Asian students coming to U.S. colleges from China, India and South Korea is rising at a much faster pace than that of Latin Americans.

There are 490,000 Asian students in U.S. colleges, and their numbers rose by 7.3 percent last year. By comparison, the 67,000 Latin American students in U.S. colleges rose by a meager 3.8 percent, the report said.

Kerry said it has taken some time to implement the program since President Barack Obama announced it two years ago, because it is a complex cooperative effort with the private sector and universities that takes time to get started. The State Department is raising funds from multinational corporations and foundations to pay for much of the program.

Senior aides to Kerry say the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program will get a big boost in January, once a recently created organization named Alianza starts giving its first grants to colleges throughout the hemisphere to speed up student exchanges.

The grants, of between $25,000 and $70,000, will not go directly to students but to colleges that want to either start engaging in student exchanges or that want to increase them. Alianza is a State Department-backed private institution aimed at helping facilitate student mobility in the hemisphere.

About 240 colleges from across the Americas have already signed up for these loans, nearly half of them from Latin America, U.S. officials say.

My opinion: Kerry may have a point when he says that he hasn’t been able to travel much to Latin America because he has had to deal with urgent international crises elsewhere.

But if he wants us to believe that the Obama administration is pursuing a proactive policy toward Latin America, it should at the very least give an extra push to its 100,000 Strong student exchange program.

It’s time for Obama himself to get involved, take the pulpit, and ask U.S. corporations and foundations to contribute for this project. Otherwise, Obama’s most important initiative in the region — some would say the only one — will not meet its target.