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    Will Latin America become a higher priority during second Obama term?

    Posted on Wednesday, 11.07.12

    Latin American Policy

    Will Latin America become a higher priority during second Obama term?

    Issues such as immigration, the clout of the Hispanic voting bloc,

    trade, potential political change and security could raise Latin

    America's profile in the United States over the next four years.


    MEXICO CITY — There's agreement across the region that Latin America

    wasn't a priority during the first term of President Barack Obama but

    analysts say there are issues that might raise the profile of Latin

    America and the Caribbean during the president's second term.

    Among them: trade, potential political change in the region, the potent

    voting bloc U.S. Hispanics have become, immigration, changing U.S.

    attitudes toward drug policy and security.

    But, in general, regional expectations for meaningful change in U.S.

    Latin American and Caribbean policy during Obama's second term were muted.

    The campaigns of both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney

    "proved that Latin America is not a priority for the United States,''

    said Simon Pachano, a political science professor at the Latin American

    Faculty for Social Sciences in Ecuador. "Latin America existed when they

    were looking for Hispanic votes, but it wasn't present in their foreign

    policy proposals."

    Anthony Bryan, a senior fellow at the Institute of International

    Relations at the of the West Indies, isn't expecting

    "dramatic changes" either.

    "President Obama will probably have more time to spend on foreign policy

    but I am not sure the Caribbean is high on the list of places that

    require attention,'' he said.

    There was an acknowledgment that Obama has big issues to deal with at

    home — job creation, tax code reforms, the deficit and bridging party

    divides — while hot-button international issues, such as an imploding

    Syria, troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, Iran's potential nuclear weapons

    capability and the Chinese , will compete for attention .

    The president should concentrate on getting the U.S. economy back on

    track because "that is the best thing we could do for Latin America'' in

    terms of spurring trade and , said Eric Farnsworth, vice

    president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

    "From a national security perspective, it's very obvious we have to show

    the world we are capable of getting our house in order if we're going to

    inspire confidence in America's continuing role in the world,'' Robert

    Kagan, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, said Wednesday during a

    forum at the Washington think tank.

    Obama's reelection brought hope in Mexico that the United States would

    move on immigration reform and take action to halt a flow of automatic

    weapons that is fueling crime and .

    Reelection news was splashed across all major newspapers in Mexico.

    El Universal's headline was "Obama wins,'' and it added, "Latin vote

    decisive for his re-election."

    That heavy Latino support "opens the opportunity for immigration reform

    because the Latino community will demand it of him. That was the

    implicit deal: Obama wins partly because of the weight of the Latino

    vote and he must push ahead on the reform that he promised in 2008,"

    Genaro Lozano, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological

    Institute of Mexico told the website.

    Lozano said Democrats are also more receptive to Mexican demands that

    U.S. gun shops stop selling the assault weapons that smugglers take

    across the border to arm Mexican crime organizations.

    The Caribbean, which has long complained about the U.S. immigration

    policy for Caribbean people, also would like to see U.S. deportation

    reform, Bryan said.

    Votes in Colorado and Washington state approving the recreational use of

    marijuana also caused a ripple in Latin America where some countries are

    considering marijuana legalization to undercut the influence of Mexican

    criminal gangs. Analysts said the votes could lead to demands for more

    debate on how to combat illegal drugs.

    Another area where Latin American would like to see some positive

    momentum from the White House is trade.

    During his first term the president pledged to double U.S. exports by

    the end of the end of 2014 as a way to increase U.S. jobs. While the

    U.S. was on target in the first years of the five-year initiative,

    progress has slowed in recent months.

    's Finance Minister Felipe Larraín said he'd like to see Obama push

    for greater free trade in the Americas "because there are so many

    potential customers for U.S. products, because Latin America is doing

    well, because the countries are growing and becoming a more powerful

    economic base.''

    When it comes to Cuba, charter flights to the island and the remittances

    that Cuba-Americans send to their families will continue. Romney had

    said he intended to roll back Cuba policy to the much more

    restrictive levels allowed under President George W. Bush.

    "That's good for both peoples and it helps capitalize the new private

    sector in Cuba,'' said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington


    The president also picked up a South Florida ally for his policy of

    liberalized travel to Cuba in Joe Garcia. The Democrat defeated

    incumbent David Rivera, an ardent foe of any opening to Cuba, in the

    redrawn 26th Congressional District.

    "Now there is a Cuban-American in Congress who is anti- but who

    also strongly supports President Obama's policies. His election breaks

    the unanimity of the Cuban-American delegation in Congress,'' said Peters.

    The Helms-Burton law limits presidential prerogatives on Cuba and it

    takes an act of Congress to lift the embargo, but the president could

    further liberalize travel to Cuba or remove Cuba from the list of

    nations that sponsor terrorism.

    But most analysts say the fate of Alan Gross — a subcontractor for the

    U.S. Agency for International Development who was arrested in 2009 and

    sentenced to 15 years in Cuban prison for trying to illegally bring in

    satellite phone equipment — is an obstacle to any new overtures toward


    The United States has pushed for his release but Cuba has insisted the

    United States must return the "Cuban Five, '' a group of Cuban agents

    convicted of spying in the United States. "Distasteful as this might be

    to some people, I think this is something that has to be negotiated by

    both sides,'' said Peters.

    In Colombia where there were fears that a Romney win might mean waning

    support for negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, President Juan Manuel

    Santos congratulated Obama and said he looked forward to building on

    their close ties. He said he hoped "we continue working with the same

    goals, the same objectives and that we keep producing results."

    Colombian negotiations with the FARC are scheduled to resume in Havana

    on Nov. 15. The FARC is considered a terrorist organization by the

    United States, but the Obama administration has been supportive of the

    peace initiative that aims to put an end to Colombia's almost 50-year


    In Haiti, where President Michel Martelly attended an election party at

    the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince Tuesday night, Obama's reelection

    also was greeted with optimism.

    A release from Haiti's National Palace said Martelly "hoped that the

    bilateral cooperation between the United States of America and the

    Republic of Haiti will continue and strengthen in the interest of both


    Martelly didn't go into details about what Haiti expects, but

    immigration activists said they'd like to see more movement on allowing

    already-approved Haitian families to reunite. Since the January 2010

    earthquake, U.S. lawmakers and advocates have been asking the Department

    of Homeland Security to expedite parole of 112,000 beneficiaries of

    family-based visa petitions that have been languishing on wait lists.

    Farnsworth, meanwhile, said there are several events that would "grab

    the attention of political Washington'' and force more attention on the

    region: the death of one or both of the Castro brothers and the prospect

    of fundamental change coming to Cuba, the death of Venezuelan President

    Hugo Chávez and a succession fight, or if — the main customer for

    Latin American commodities — doesn't hit growth of at least 8.5 to 9


    "If any of these things happen, it could change things — and it could

    change things on a dime,'' he said last week during a Latin America

    Predictors Forum in Coral Gables.

    Haiti Correspondent Jacqueline Charles and Latin American correspondent

    Jim Wyss in Bogota contributed to this report.