Land of the Lost
By Michael Shifter
Foreign Policy, November 5, 2012
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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