Now, Obama Can Focus More on the Region

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Almost without warning, issues that have long been on the agenda between the US and Latin America are alive again as Barack Obama looks to his second term. Immigration, Cuba, and drugs have always had an unusually high dose of domestic politics, and they still do, but results of the recent US elections suggest that obstacles to progress may be easing.

The sudden optimism about immigration reform in Obama’s second term is notable. Observers shouldn’t have been so surprised about how crucial the “Latino vote” was in the elections. Although Obama was late in moving on immigration and pursued an aggressive deportation policy, he was favored over a Republican Party that, inexplicably, frightened immigrants with offensive rhetoric.

Obama has promised that, soon after he tackles his highest priority – averting a fiscal crisis – he will propose immigration reform. The moment is propitious. But there are many varieties of reform, and reaching consensus will not be easy. Parts of the Republican Party still resist any change that resembles a “path to citizenship” for unauthorized migrants.

Although a serious immigration reform would most benefit US relations with Mexico and its new administration, Washington’s ability to enact measures that lead to more humane treatment of immigrants would have positive consequences in Latin America and throughout the world. South American countries would welcome such a shift, which could improve cooperation with the US on other issues.

Even more than immigration, dramatic change in US policy towards Cuba would be met with enthusiasm in Latin America. There has been no greater source of irritation between the US and the region. As if further proof were needed, the message issued at the last Summit of the Americas in Cartagena was loud and clear: Latin American governments will refuse to participate in another Summit unless Cuba is present. There is fierce opposition to the US embargo, not only in Latin America but worldwide.

In his first term, Obama took some steps to open up such as lifting restrictions of remittances and travel of Cuban Americans. The White House considered these important, but in Latin America such steps were seen as nearly meaningless. The view has been that Cuba policy has been held hostage by the influential, hardline Cuban American community in Miami.

In this election, however, Obama got half of the vote of that community — a big jump from 2008. Younger Cuban Americans want to change a failed Cuba policy and they are not single-issue voters like the older generation.

No one is betting that Obama will move boldly to take advantage of the widening political space on Cuba policy. He will likely continue to be cautious. Cuba is not a high priority, there are few political benefits for him, and ending the embargo would require an act of Congress — which still has key Cuban American members who will oppose any change.

The Cartagena Summit also revealed how frustrated Latin American leaders are with US-led anti-drug policy. They called for a debate and consideration of alternative approaches. Initiatives in the region – Uruguay’s proposed marijuana law stands out – have now been joined by votes at the state level in Washington and Colorado to decriminalize recreational use of marijuana.

The Obama administration is not eager to make changes in drug policy, but it will be hard to ignore the clear public opinion trends in the US and the growing pressure in Latin America to rethink an approach that is not working.

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