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What Will Obama's Second Term Mean for Latin America?

By Peter Hakim, Andrés Rozental, Rubens Barbosa, Riordan Roett, Ruben Olmos
Latin America Advisor, November 8, 2012

Originally published in the Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor

Q: Barack Obama was re-elected president of the United States on Tuesday. What is his vision for foreign policy and how does Latin America fit into his plans? How will Latin American leaders and their citizens react to the election results? What role did Latinos in the United States play in the election and what does that mean for U.S. policy changes on issues such as immigration, drugs and Cuba?  

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "Any speculation about Obama's second term has to come mainly from his first-term performance. The campaign was about the candidates and their biographies—not about issues. Nothing suggests Congress will be more productive. The House remains virtually unchanged. The Senate will be more divisive still as most remaining moderate Republicans and Democrats resigned or lost their seats. We will know soon whether compromise is possible when the lame-duck Congress returns next week, and begins discussion of the fiscal cliff embroglio. The best guess is that Congress will find a way, not to resolve the problem, but to defer its consequences. The election results focused attention on immigration policy, which both Republicans and Democrats may be motivated to address. President Obama's declared intention to address immigration was surely reinforced by the huge Latino vote. Many of the Republicans who blocked previous immigration initiatives will resist again. But some recognize their party may become irrelevant unless they take seriously the Latino and black constituencies that accounted for more than 40 percent of Obama's total. U.S. immigration reform would be a welcome change in most of Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Obama may seek to pursue further openings to Cuba—but these will be limited unless the Cuban government shows a willingness to reciprocate with new human rights measures or political changes. Drug policy is not high on the U.S. agenda, but the approval in Colorado and Washington of ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana use may spark wider discussion on drug issues. But Mitt Romney offered the most significant policy proposal for Latin America, when called for more intensive U.S. efforts to pursue multiplying economic opportunities in the region."    

A: Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board, president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: "President Obama's re-election is a welcome development for Latin Americans in general, and Mexicans in particular. Although many of Obama's campaign promises in 2008 relevant to the region remain unrealized, there is a modicum of hope that as a leader in his second term, with more political capital to spend, he can at least make a stronger effort to tackle comprehensive immigration reform and trade issues critical to Latin American prosperity. Although I don't foresee any major change in the United States' foreign policy toward the region, especially as long as Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East remain priorities for Washington, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. We often complain when Washington pays too much attention to us, and equally when there's less overt interest in the region, but I believe that Obama has mostly shown a much more mature attitude toward Latin America over the last four years than has traditionally been the case. This will hopefully also be the case as his administration continues through 2016. Presumably, there will continue to be a strong focus on completing ongoing trade negotiations, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to open new opportunities for economic growth and hopefully a re-visiting of NAFTA as a key option to make North America more competitive on the global scene. Latinos played a key role in re-electing Obama, just as they did in 2008, and the one message that Republicans have to take home at this stage is that the anti-immigrant, exclusionary policies voiced during the campaign by Mitt Romney, the Tea Party and other conservatives were a key factor in their ultimate defeat. Many of Obama's liberal views on minority rights and tolerance turned out to be much more popular among Americans as a whole than the opposing Republican positions on those same issues."

A: Rubens Barbosa, former ambassador of Brazil to the United States: "In his second term, Obama will be more interested in looking for his legacy in history. The U.S. government will tend to be more proactive and try to increase its influence in the current hot spots: Pakistan, Syria, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. The relationship with China will continue to be high on the foreign policy agenda. Having in mind this scenario, Latin America will continue to be off the radar of U.S. decision makers: the region will remain a low priority for Washington. Despite this fact, the reaction of the Latin American leaders and citizens to Obama's re-election has been very positive. The role of Latinos in the election was important and in some places crucial. In terms of policy changes on issues such as immigration, drugs and Cuba, Obama will continue to face strong opposition from the Republican Party but I would not be surprised if new ideas could be advanced by the administration especially in relation to immigration and Cuba."

A: Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: "While the president's re-election is welcome in general terms, it is difficult to imagine Latin America will receive greater attention in the next four years. Congress remains deeply divided. The administration's foreign policy priorities will continue to focus on China, the Middle East and the ongoing fiscal challenges. Given the strong turnout by the Latino community, one area that should receive priority is continued immigration reform, but it is the third rail for the Republican majority in the House. In general, the democratic governments of the region will welcome the president's election without great expectation for major policy initiatives. The populist regimes will continue to denounce any democratically elected administration. The deadlock over Cuba will continue unless there is a dramatic leadership shift to a new generation. The major policy initiative that would be welcome in the region is on drug policy, but that issue will remain taboo."

A: Ruben Olmos, partner at Global Policy Strategies in Washington: "It is no surprise that the international community expressed gratitude for President Barack Obama's re-election. Since the beginning of the campaign, leaders around the world hinted that it was better to deal with the same person in the Oval Office than a new one. While Obama continues to enjoy high levels of support by Latin American leaders and citizens, including those in Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador, he will need a new forward-looking and thoughtful policy toward a diverse and changing continent. The president and his team need to leave the rhetoric aside and focus on the urgent needs affecting the Americas, which include transnational organized crime, illegal immigration, poverty and free trade. The Obama administration needs to continue financial and technical support to Mexico and Central America to combat extremely violent criminal groups. Obama has expressed strong support for the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, and is backing the possibilities of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Immigration will remain at the forefront of the bilateral agenda with Latin America and is a key domestic interest of the growing Hispanic community in the United States. A record 23 million Latinos were eligible to vote on Tuesday. The president has said he will work across party lines to promote comprehensive immigration reform that would benefit 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Obama said during the campaign that he supports the Dream Act, which would provide an orderly road toward legalization for young people who fulfill a series of conditions. Obama has a unique opportunity to re-engage with a region which has in fact been the least of his worries. He will soon host Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, who has expressed a desire to work very closely with the United States to re-launch the bilateral agenda."

Originally published in the Dialogue's Latin America Advisor