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.
By MIMI WHITEFIELD and TIM JOHNSON
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
Anthony Bryan, a senior fellow at the Institute of International
Relations at the University 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 economy, 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 investment, 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 violence.
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 adnpolitico.com 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.
Chile'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
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 travel 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-embargo 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 China — 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.