SAO PAULO—Many Latin Americans are bemoaning the fact that President Obama’s trip to the region was overshadowed by events in Libya and Japan, and that the visitor made no announcement of a major policy initiative. They are wrong.

Relations between countries are best when they are businesslike, do not make the headlines and appear less urgent than simply newsworthy. It is usually a sign of maturity and predictability. In the case of Latin America, it is also a symptom of how little the region’s apparent political and economic takeoff (with a few exceptions) owes to the policies of foreign powers. Progress has happened under the radar screen of a world whose attention has never been strongly focused on this part of the Western Hemisphere.

There had been expectations that Obama would start a new grand scheme, echoing Harry Truman’s Point-Four Program or John Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Anything resembling them would have been counterproductive in the surrealist event that the United States, overwhelmed by deficits and debt, had found the money. Washington already struggles to come up with the $15 billion devoted every year to the repressive aspect of the hemispherewide drug war—which, by the U.S. drug czar’s own admission last year, “has not been successful.” More to the point, foreign aid and international cooperation have had little to do with the explosion of entrepreneurial activity that is behind the reduction of Latin American poverty (now only one-third of the population) this past decade. The hemisphere’s recent progress has needed no paternalistic initiatives.

The things that truly matter are happening at the grass-roots level and among the middle classes. Latin Americans are trading like never before, as American exporters know all too well since the goods they sell to that region are growing faster than U.S. commerce with any other part of the world. And although the United States exports about three times more to Latin America than to China, the real story is that globalization has widened the spectrum of Latin America’s commercial and investment partners immensely. China is already the No. 1 trading partner with Brazil and Chile, while Colombia, giving up hope that the U.S. will ratify the free-trade agreement both countries signed five years ago, has engaged the Chinese economy so strongly that plans are being drawn for a railroad as an alternative to the Panama Canal—to Washington’s horror.

None of this means that Latin America can afford to ignore the United States in the way the U.S. has tended to ignore Latin America except for security issues. And this is why efforts by Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff to reverse her predecessor’s infantile anti-American foreign policy are welcome. While former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva managed yet again to come across as petty (he boycotted a luncheon with Obama), Rousseff ordered her diplomats to vote against Iran at the U.N. Human Rights Council. If Brazil really wants a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council, this kind of responsible behavior will do its prospects more good than Lula’s courtship of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other such buffoons. It was also encouraging to see Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes send Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez the clear message that there is a new center-left in Central America for which developed liberal democracies are more attractive partners than the washed-up cabal of populist lefties he represents.

It was appropriate for Obama to give his address to the region in Chile. Not only is Chile—politically and economically—the country closest to being developed. It also has a president, Sebastian Pinera, who is a good interpreter of current trends in Latin America and a good judge of the players’ instincts. The relatively small weight that Chile carries by virtue of its size should not discourage leaders in Washington to call on him when they are at pains to understand what is going on. His insistence that the U.S. ratify the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama ought not to fall on deaf ears.

U.S. presidents should always pick the wrong time to go to Latin America—i.e., times when something dramatic happening on the other side of the planet concentrates their attention, and that of the media, elsewhere. This way, they will only have time to focus on the essential and renounce the temptation of the grandiose. The cemetery of U.S-Latin America relations is packed with grandiose bones.