Michael Fumento:

Medellín — There are two Latin Americas. There’s the largely fictional one of media-perpetuated stereotypes; and there’s the real one: an incredibly vibrant, industrial, youthful, open-minded people with whom the United States — if it wishes to remain a great power — absolutely must forge stronger economic and political bonds.

I have now lived in four cities of two Latin American countries: Medellin, Bogota, and Cartagena, Colombia, and Guadalajara, Mexico. I stay in others’ homes and rarely speak English. And I’ve observed what the empirical data support: Gringos suffer mass misperceptions harmful to all parties; false beliefs that impede business dealings and national security arrangements with people who are both neighbors and friends.

“Gringos” he says. Isn’t that a nasty word? Sure, in context — like when the bandito calls Clint Eastwood’s character a “Feelthy greengo peeg!” In reality, it’s a neutral term often applied to any foreigner and sometimes to lighter-featured people within the country.

(I’ve also never heard anyone say “Hasta la vista!” In Guadalajara it’s usually “¡Que le vaya bien!” essentially “May all go well!” Nice, huh?)

Yes, they’re neighbors. This notwithstanding that two different Americans whose jobs concern Latin America recently asked me of Mexico, “What is South America like?” Maps show Mexico firmly attached to the U.S. in the North American continent.

Yet the real South America is close enough that you can fly from Washington, D.C., to two major capitals there in the same time it takes to go from L.A. to Washington, D.C. That means all of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean is even closer. You can also drive from the U.S. to the southern tip of South America. Try that with Hawaii while keeping your socks dry.

How about the stereotypical Mexican with the huge sombrero and poncho, napping under a tree? Never saw that, but have personally observed that Latin American work weeks are six days, 10 to 12 hours on the job with a two-hour lunch. Hardly surprising, then, that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says Mexicans are the hardest-working people of its 26 member nations.

Nor should it be surprising that the economy of Latin America grew 4.3% in 2011, while that of the U.S. limped along at 1.7%. No wonder Latin American economic performance confidence levels are higher than in anywhere else in the world, according to Thornton International’s 2011 report.

That also helps explain why between 1998 and 2009, total U.S. merchandise trade (exports plus imports) with Latin America grew by 82%. This compared with 72% for Asia and only 51% with the EU nations. Yet the U.S. has barely tapped that potential, with almost 60% of Latin American trade coming from just one nation — Mexico .

Brazil’s economy alone is twice the size of Mexico’s and growing much faster. Indeed, it’s now the world’s sixth-largest. And two years ago China knocked aside the U.S. as its largest trading partner. Indeed, throughout “America’s backyard” China is gaining market share from the U.S. at an astounding pace…