Land of the Lost

Latin Americans may prefer Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, but few believe either candidate will pay the region the attention it deserves.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It is hard to find many Latin Americans who believe that either a second Obama term or a Romney administration is likely to overcome the stunning shortsightedness that has long characterized U.S. policy toward the region. By now, the reasons for Latin America’s importance to the United States are as familiar as they are compelling: trade, energy, democracy, demography, proximity.

Most Latin Americans would prefer to see Barack Obama reelected, not so much because they have great hopes about a more vigorous commitment to the hemisphere in the next four years, but rather because Obama is widely respected and seen as a responsible steward of global affairs.

Mitt Romney, for the most part, is unknown, and any perceived association between him and the last Republican administration arouses intense concern. George W. Bush was mistrusted — again, less because of his shortcomings in dealing with the region (in fact, he was an advocate of two popular issues, immigration reform and free trade) than because of his reckless foreign policy and irresponsible fiscal management.

Regardless of who wins the presidential race, the next president will be consumed by America’s profound domestic problems and distracted by what are deemed to be more urgent foreign-policy priorities: Iran, Pakistan, the Middle East, China, North Korea. Even an issue as manifestly fundamental to U.S. interests as Mexico’s security situation — drug-fueled violence has claimed some 60,000 Mexican lives since 2006 — has, astonishingly, been absent from the campaign.

Such glaring omissions are greeted in the region with the peculiar ambivalence that still marks U.S.-Latin American relations. There is, on the one hand, bewilderment and frustration, as expressed last April by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (one of Washington’s closest regional allies): "If the United States realizes that its strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but in Latin America, and if they realize that working together can create prosperity … then we’ll achieve great results," he declared.

On the other hand, some voices wonder whether U.S. indifference is in fact a blessing — one that has made the region’s sound economic and social performance over the past decade possible. While the United States has been preoccupied at home and elsewhere abroad, Latin Americans (South Americans especially) have forged deeper ties with China and other players outside the hemisphere. They have also fashioned innovative anti-poverty approaches like conditional cash transfer programs. The overall result has been moderate economic growth, falling poverty rates, and, in a number of countries, declining inequality.

Still, despite the shrinking asymmetry between the United States and Latin America and Washington’s declining influence in the region, the next administration’s hemispheric agenda is far from irrelevant. The bad news? Much of that agenda — Cuba, drugs, trade, immigration — contains an unusually high dose of domestic U.S. politics.

The modest progress Obama has made on these fronts since 2009 illustrates this very point. Many Latin Americans would like to see comprehensive immigration reform and the end of the punitive U.S. embargo against Cuba, and are therefore disappointed by the administration’s aggressive deportation policy and incremental action on Cuba. (The decision not to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center — not a Latin American issue but one of symbolic significance for many Latin Americans — hasn’t helped matters.) But Obama has taken small yet positive steps: by removing Bush-era restrictions on travel and remittance flows to Cuba and, in a move that drew applause not only from many of the 50 million Latinos in the United States but also throughout Latin America, embracing a Dream Act-lite that could give as many as 1.7 million young unauthorized migrants work permits for two years.

The optimists hope that, in his second term, Obama would be unburdened by the domestic political constraints that have made his Latin American policy notably cautious. By no longer having to worry about winning Florida and catering to hard-line Cuban-Americans, Obama would presumably be free to pursue a more energetic strategy to engage Cuba. Obama has not hinted at such a course, so that may be wishful thinking. Obama has, however, been explicit about making immigration reform a high priority over the next four years. The politics are complicated (even in the Democratic Party) and the best Obama may be able to muster is a series of meaningful steps — such as expanding temporary worker programs or passing the Dream Act in Congress — rather than a comprehensive package. But any forward movement would be met with enthusiasm by most Latin Americans and Latinos in the United States.

The issue driving the biggest wedge between Latin America and the United States is narcotics, and even the most hardcore optimists doubt that a second Obama term would bring a serious review of U.S. anti-drug policy or more far-reaching measures to control the flow of arms and money to the region. (Most of the drug-related murders in Mexico are committed with arms sold in the United States.) While the issue hardly gets mentioned anymore in U.S. presidential contests, a number of respected former and current Latin American presidents have recently called for a rethinking of the U.S.-led prohibitionist approach to and criminalization of drug consumption. As the drug trade fuels violent crime and corruption in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, Obama has agreed to listen to alternative proposals, but not much more than that. And there is, of course, no sign that Obama is ready to take on the powerful gun lobby in the United States.

If Romney wins, optimists hope that his more moderate, pragmatic foreign-policy advisors will have the upper hand. Many were intrigued and heartened when they heard Romney say in the recent foreign-policy debate that Latin America represented a "huge opportunity." But it is not clear precisely what that means, and what a Romney administration would be prepared to do to take advantage of such an opportunity. Deepening current integration schemes (with NAFTA, for example) or pursuing a trade agreement with Brazil — the world’s sixth-largest economy — sound appealing, but doing so would involve tough battles with powerful political interests such as Florida’s orange juice producers. There is no evidence that Romney would be willing to engage in such battles.

Latin Americans worry that a Romney presidency could bring back some of the more confrontational, aggressive rhetoric aimed at the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes that marked the first George W. Bush administration. Unlike Obama, Romney sees Hugo Chávez as a national security threat in light of the Venezuelan president’s ties to the Iranian regime. The GOP candidate has repeatedly expressed alarm about the presence of Hezbollah in the region.

In practice, the policy shift under Romney would likely be marginal. But the rhetoric could heat up and the political polarization in the hemisphere could intensify. Romney’s tough stand on immigration and almost comical references to "self-deportation" as part of the solution won’t help him in the region. Moreover, if Romney translates his relentless China-bashing into Spanish, that could also make many in the region uneasy. China — now the largest trading partner for Brazil, Chile, and Peru and second-largest for Argentina and Colombia — has, on balance, had a positive economic impact on the region.

So who would be better for Latin America — Obama or Romney? For a region so profoundly connected to the United States — one that receives more than $50 billion in remittance flows each year from a rapidly growing Latino population in the States — the answer may ultimately be the candidate who has the best chance of averting a fiscal cliff and fixing the U.S. economy. In that respect, Latin Americans have a lot in common with their American counterparts.

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