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The U.S. Election and Latin America

A President Obama or a President McCain will have to address trade, immigration, Hugo Chávez, and more.


During [the recent] presidential debate, which concentrated largely on foreign policy, the two candidates hardly mentioned Latin America. We heard nothing about the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, nothing about Mexico’s increasingly violent war on drugs, nothing about boosting economic cooperation with Brazil and other regional powers, and nothing about promoting a democratic transition in Cuba. Barack Obama cited Venezuela as one of the oil-rich “rogue states” that pose a challenge to U.S. energy policy, and John McCain blasted the Democratic candidate for his earlier promises to meet with the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba “without preconditions” during his first year in office. Other than that, Latin America was almost completely absent from the conversation.


This was not terribly surprising. Given the panoply of challenges that the next U.S. president will face—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, China, and elsewhere—it is understandable that Latin America has received only minimal attention on the campaign trail. Barring a regional crisis, the Western Hemisphere will not be a top-tier priority for the next administration, regardless of who wins the election. The 9/11 terrorist attacks pushed Latin America to the background of U.S. foreign policy discussions, and even the noisy, belligerent rise of Hugo Chávez has not changed that. Latin American officials must realize that neither a President Obama nor a President McCain will alter the fundamental orientation of U.S. foreign policy, which is focused mainly on the Middle East and Asia.

Of course, Latin America won’t be ignored completely. Obama and McCain seem to approach the region differently, especially on the issue of trade. McCain has been a staunch free trader throughout his career on Capitol Hill, and he favors the bilateral trade pacts with Colombia and Panama, both of which are awaiting congressional approval. In early July, McCain visited Cartagena to demonstrate his support for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and urge passage of the trade accord. Obama opposes the Colombia and Panama deals (as do most congressional Democrats), and has even suggested that he might try to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Congress approved way back in 1993.

Although McCain is a free trader, his election would not necessarily lead to a burst of trade liberalization in the Western Hemisphere. The Democratic Congress has shown itself to be very protectionist, and it has stymied President Bush’s trade agenda for two years now. Assuming that Democrats maintain their control of Congress—which seems virtually guaranteed—a President McCain would face stiff opposition on trade expansion. The Colombia and Panama agreements might remain in limbo. Obama, meanwhile, has criticized free trade on the campaign trail and in the Senate—he voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005—and we have no way of knowing whether he would change his tune if elected.


Trade policy aside, many people in Latin America seem hopeful that a President Obama would boost economic assistance to the region. The Illinois senator has pledged that his administration would “substantially increase our aid to the Americas.” However, given the financial bailout package and Obama’s plans to spend more on healthcare, education, and energy, it is unlikely that Latin America would see a major increase in U.S. aid. Congress has more pressing spending concerns.

What about immigration? In the past, both McCain and Obama have favored comprehensive immigration reform. In July, Obama told the League of United Latin American Citizens that it would be “a top priority in my first year as president.” But immigration is a highly controversial issue among members of both parties. If a President McCain or a President Obama pushed for comprehensive immigration reform early in his tenure, he would be taking a big political risk.

On Venezuela, McCain has hammered Obama for vowing to meet with Chávez without preconditions. That was indeed a reckless comment, and Obama has paid for it. But it’s unclear whether either candidate could do much to sway Venezuelan foreign policy. Until oil prices drop significantly—which probably won’t happen anytime soon—Chávez will be swimming in petrodollars, which will allow him to continue funding his ideological comrades around the region.


The Venezuelan president has also cultivated warm relations with Russia and Iran. As The New York Times reports, Russian and Venezuelan officials recently agreed to establish “a Russian-Venezuelan energy consortium that would share resources to produce and sell oil and gas. Russian companies are already at work exploring oil fields in Venezuela, but the agreement will allow them to expand their reach into more areas, including fields in Ecuador and Bolivia.” Moscow and Caracas may also begin collaborating on nuclear energy.

As for Iran, there is evidence tying Chávez to the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah. In June, U.S. Treasury Department official Adam J. Szubin charged the Venezuelan government with “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.” This came just months after the latest exposure of Chávez’s links to the FARC terrorists in Colombia.

The good news is that Chávez does not represent the broader Latin American left. Over the past few years, a series of more responsible, pragmatic center-left leaders have taken office in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru. Meanwhile, center-right reformers have been elected in Colombia and Mexico. Thanks to the efforts of presidents like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Tabaré Vázquez (Uruguay), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Alan García (Peru), Álvaro Uribe (Colombia), and Felipe Calderón (Mexico), the region as a whole has been doing fairly well.

Indeed, the vast majority of Latin American countries have been able to build more resilient economies, diminish poverty, and consolidate democracy. Assuming the financial turmoil does not trigger a deep global recession, most of Latin America looks poised to continue on a relatively stable path of economic development and democratic maturation. The United States can and should play a significant role in supporting that process, even if, unfortunately, its chief foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere.

Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica’s former ambassador to the United States, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute. The article originally appeared in the online version of The American magazine (www.american.com).


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