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McCain's Visit to Colombia

By Michael Shifter
El Tiempo (Colombia), June 27, 2008

Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

John McCain faces an uphill fight to win the United States presidency in November. All the key factors – desire for change, economic anxiety, and disapproval of the Republican Party – favor Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who is well ahead in current polls. To gain some momentum, McCain needs to show that his reputation for independence is justified – by distancing himself from President Bush and reaching out to moderates – without sacrificing the Republican base. It’s no easy task.

In this context, McCain’s decision to visit Colombia and Mexico next week, just four months before the election, is puzzling. Presumably, the campaign hopes to contrast his strong support for free trade with what he sees as the short-sighted, protectionist position of Obama. And the selection of Colombia and Mexico, both plagued by drug violence, is intended to show McCain’s advantage on national security questions.

Greater attention to the situations in Colombia and Mexico is certainly welcome. But McCain, whose mindset often appears stuck in Cold War ideology, is unlikely to offer a fresh perspective on Latin America. Nor will the visit do much to strengthen his candidacy. In this uncertain economic environment, free trade is hardly a winning political issue for either party.

In contrast, US voters do see national security as a priority. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans have the upper hand on this issue, but Obama has shrewdly avoided any appearance of weakness. He backs counter-drug and security aid to Colombia and Mexico. And his Obama’s tough statement in support of Colombia after the March 1 raid on the FARC camp in Ecuador surprised many who had expected a more ambiguous reaction. McCain, then, may have a hard time drawing a sharp contrast with Obama on this front.

McCain must be calculating that he can win votes by suggesting a Republican administration would be a stronger ally to Latin America. Whether that is true or not, however, hemispheric relations are simply not a hot-button voting issue for most Americans. In particular, the campaign may hope that solidarity with regional governments will win him votes from Latinos – an increasingly powerful constituency in the US. But they vote based on the same issues most other Americans do – particularly economic questions, given the current apprehension.

I have visited both Colombia and Mexico over the last two weeks and been struck by the goodwill generated by a possible Obama presidency. Even Colombians who support President Uribe and an FTA with the US seem to prefer Obama. Much of the sympathy has to do with the intensely and widely unpopular Iraq War.  Obama has been sharply critical, while McCain has been supportive. For many in the region, Obama seems more likely to break from the Bush approach and set a new overall tone.

Still, McCain’s visit can be a success if it improves the policy debate in the US on two critical questions: immigration and drugs. On immigration, McCain led the fight for comprehensive reform but recently backtracked. Hopefully, the trip will help show McCain and the American people that immigration policies have important repercussions on relations with all of Latin America. Though the international fallout is rarely considered in Washington, a “wall” on the US-Mexico border will sow further ill will within the region.

On the drug issue, recent United Nations data on cocaine cultivation show the problem is worsening. Criminality fueled by drugs poses the gravest risk to the rule of law and democratic institutions in Latin America. But there has been no debate on the issue in the presidential campaign and US policy is unfortunately stuck on auto-pilot. Plan Colombia and the pending Mérida Initiative law enforcement program for Mexico and Central America may help, but a serious review of alternative strategies is absolutely vital.

McCain’s visit may not yield much for him electorally, but by shining a light on the challenges in Colombia and Mexico, it may indirectly help stimulate a higher quality and sorely needed debate on these pressing issues.