The US Elections: Implications for Latin America

The November 6 US elections may open the door to addressing contentious issues between the United States and Latin America, contended Inter-American Dialogue president, Michael Shifter. Speaking at a special roundtable event at the Dialogue on November 12, Shifter and other Dialogue experts expressed optimism that the political terrain may have shifted on issues like drugs, Cuba, and most importantly, immigration.

The legalization of the production, sale, and recreational use of marijuana in the states of Washington and Colorado and the sanctioning of the drug’s medicinal use in a total of now 18 states reflects a change in US cultural attitudes towards the drug. Though the impact of these policies on transnational drug flows is debatable, these state level changes certainly represent an opportunity for US, Mexican, and other regional officials to reconsider long-standing drug policies. As Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Dialogue, pointed out, the US visit of Mexico’s president-elect, Peña Nieto, at the end of this month is an opportune time to initiate such discussions.

In Florida, Obama won almost half of the Cuban vote, demonstrating a shift in the policy preferences of a traditionally Republican constituency. Having already softened restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban citizens, Obama’s reelection may signal an opportunity to reconsider the official stance towards the island, an issue that alienates the United States from much of the hemisphere. Shifter cautioned, however, that Obama has little political incentive to drastically revise the US position on critical issues in the US-Cuban relationship such as the embargo or the maintenance of Guantanamo Bay.

A previously intractable issue, the subject of immigration policy reform has reappeared in bipartisan discourse thanks to the influence of the Latino vote in the recent election. Manuel Orozco, senior associate at the Dialogue, emphasized that any reform would have to incorporate avenues for undocumented youth to obtain citizenship, stating that “nothing less than the Dream Act will be negotiable.”

Hakim highlighted the economic benefits of immigration reform, including greater tax revenues and economic growth as a result of increased consumption by legalized migrants. Benefits extend beyond the border, strengthening the quality of the US-Mexico bilateral relationship and helping Mexico, the United States’ third largest trading partner, to grow economically through the increased flow of remittances.

Panelists also addressed the triangular relationship among the United States, China, and Latin America. With Obama’s reelection, experts forecasted US diplomatic attention to continue to pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region. Countries such as Chile, Peru, and Brazil, all of which count China as their largest trading partner, are making similar adjustments. According to Margaret Myers, director of the China-Latin America program at the Dialogue, such examples represent a growing trend of Latin American countries strengthening their own Asia-Pacific agendas separate from the United States.

The Latino vote was critical for both winning this election and bringing important issues related to Latin America to the forefront of US politics. By increasing their number of registered voters and improving their political organization overall, Latinos have no doubt become a serious political force. As their numbers continue to grow, it is likely that Latino voters will continue to drive serious policy change in the United States, especially on key issues for US-Latin American relations.

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