Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Do the US Election Results Mean for Latin America?

Q: In the U.S. midterm elections Nov. 2, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives and picked up seats in the Democrat-controlled Senate, which President Barack Obama called a ‘shellacking’ for Democrats. What do the election results mean for hemispheric policy and foreign relations? How will the Republican victories affect immigration, trade, and other issues that are relevant to Latin America?

A: Jim Kolbe, former Republican congressman from Arizona: “When a president loses his majority in the Congress, it is common for him to turn to foreign affairs, where the shared responsibility with Congress is much less and his ability to shape policy is far greater. However, the public’s anxiety over the sluggish economic recovery almost assures that the president’s focus will remain on domestic policy in the next two years leading up to his re-election campaign. One of the first ‘beneficiaries’ of the new Congress could be the pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. The president has made clear that he wants to complete them and hopes to wrap up a package of changes for the Korea agreement at the G-20 conference later this month. Republicans have a warm spot for Colombia, which they regard as a strong ally in fight against drug trafficking. They will undoubtedly encourage the president to expedite that agreement—something not possible for him to have done in the current Congress given the implacable opposition of Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leadership. The expected ascent of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee assures a continued hard line in Congress on Cuba. One could expect President Obama to soft pedal any changes in that relationship in order to court favor on other foreign policy priorities. A new president in Brazil will necessitate some attention to continue the good working relationship that exists between the United States and Brazil. Other changes in Latin America policy should be minimal and largely unaffected by the reversal of fortunes in Congress. Finally, hemispheric policy is inextricably tied to the domestic issue of immigration. The new Congress is even less likely than the last to make any changes in immigration policy. Watch for rising Republican stars like Senator-elect Marco Rubio of Florida to see if they try to move the Republican party in a new direction on immigration.”

A: Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board, president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: “The results of the U.S. congressional elections can only be sobering news for Latin America in general, and Mexico in particular. With a political and foreign policy agenda in Washington already crowded with issues unrelated to our region, it would appear that the hemisphere will slip even further down on the list of priorities for both the Obama administration and Congress. The change of control in the House probably means that even if he really wanted to move the immigration and gun control agenda forward, President Barack Obama won’t have the political capital needed to counter newly elected right-wing Republicans and Tea Party representatives who generally oppose comprehensive immigration reform or any limitations on Second Amendment rights to buy and own all types of weapons, many of which find their way to the drug cartels in Mexico and beyond. Although some analysts have forecast an increased foreign policy interest by the White House after the Nov. 2 elections, any such change will most probably focus on Afghanistan, India-Pakistan relations, Iran and the Middle East peace process, not on the immediate neighborhood. Congress has already reduced the amount of assistance under Plan Mérida to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, which was meant to materialize the ‘shared responsibility’ that the United States has rhetorically assumed for the war on drugs since Obama was elected two years ago. Nothing on his or the immediate congressional agenda would indicate today that relations with Latin America might substantially change during the remaining biennium of his first term.”

A: James R. Jones, member of the Advisor board and Co-chair of Manatt Jones Global Strategies: “Elections send messages to politicians who try to respond favorably. Two predominant but incompatible messages seem to have been received from last Tuesday’s voting. First, voters said ‘you people in Washington should work together, stop the gridlock and get things done.’ Second, especially for Republicans, a loud message was ‘don’t compromise, defeat the Obama initiatives.’ It’s too early to tell what this means for issues affecting Latin America. It could mean that pending trade agreements, including free trade measures with Panama and Colombia, may move forward. This probably would be pushed by the Republican House and agreed to on a bipartisan vote in the Senate. John Boehner, probably the new speaker, seems to support this not only for substantive reasons but political ones, too. Pushing trade legislation drives a wedge between Democrats and the party’s support base of labor unions. It could mean additional support for the Mérida Initiative both for Mexico as well as Central America and the Caribbean nations potentially affected by drug organizations. It is a stretch to believe immigration reform will be considered before the 2012 presidential elections. Most conservative Republicans oppose this and nearly half of the Democrats do also. The next two years in Congress will see domestic issues dominate as Republicans conduct investigations of the Obama administration, highlight wasted spending and offer spending cuts to Democratic initiatives such as the health reform legislation. Foreign policy issues in Latin America are not likely to get much attention.”

A: Jason Hafemeister, member of the Advisor board and vice president of Allen F. Johnson & Associates: “The election results create a new opportunity for moving the trade agenda forward, in particular the pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. The president and the Republican leadership have identified moving these agreements as a priority, and trade is an area to demonstrate the cooperation both sides need to show voters that they are serious about their governing responsibilities. The Colombia and Panama agreements are hard for members of Congress not to support: they create new export opportunities for U.S. firms, inject little new competition into the U.S. market and advance U.S. foreign policy. The agreements provide plenty of political cover for members of Congress: the deals were largely negotiated by the Bush administration, will be submitted to Congress by the Obama administration, are a priority of the Republican leadership and will pass a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. Ultimately, it comes down to counting the votes, particularly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Even if only a handful of Democrats do the right thing and support the agreements, the Republican leadership can afford to let a number of its members vote against the agreements and still ensure passage. The Senate, with its small Democratic majority, has deeper bipartisan support for the agreements and has never been seen as the problem in moving the legislation. The United States will also try to finish FTA negotiations with Korea. The time is right for the president and Congress to move quickly to get all three agreements implemented. Not only will they get well-earned praise for efforts of cooperation, but by opening markets for U.S. exports they advance President Obama’s goal of doubling exports in five years and address the primary concern of the electorate: strengthening the U.S. economy.”