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Obama and Latin America

What will Barack Obama's presidency mean for Latin America? Four experts share their predictions.

Inter-American Dialogue

Barack Obama was elected 44th president of the US [last week] in what he called a "defining moment" for the country. What can Obama do in his first 100 days to improve relations between the United Statesw and Latin America? What are Latin Americans expecting of the new president, and how will his performance be measured by the region?

Otto Reich, President of Otto Reich Associates LLC, and served as both Special Envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush: First, President Obama should do no harm. He should re-examine his opposition to free trade agreements. They have been the most effective tool for job creation in the hemisphere in the past two decades. But trade is not enough. In Latin America our over-reliance on diplomacy has resulted in the loss of respect by our friends and of fear by our enemies. Diplomacy has limits. We must actively support our friends, especially Mexico and Colombia and more energetically, but non-belligerently if possible, confront those who call themselves our enemies and behave in a hostile manner, like Chavez, Morales and Correa. Third, he should order US laws to be enforced even if some in the State Department do not like them. Case in point is Section 212 (f) of the Immigration and Nationalities Act, which requires that corrupt officials and private citizens have their US visas revoked. It is no secret that State has been remiss in the enforcement of this law, thus enabling the corruption which undermines the very institutions of democracy the US spends billions trying to strengthen.

Thomas Pickering, Vice Chairman of Hills & Company International Consultants and former US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 1997 to 2001: Latin America has come to be looked on as a second order challenge for the United States. Too little has been made of the opportunities for cooperation. Obama needs in an early speech, perhaps in the Hemisphere, to set out his ideas and assessments. The substance will be critical. Trade either with emphasis on Doha or a revival of the FTAA could put paid to the notion he is congenitally anti-trade. A new look at the struggle over drugs from the demand as well as the supply side would also help. Looking again at Cuba and a more open policy, closing Guantanamo to prisoners, and a new approach to immigration would be an important and symbolic start. A summit at which he listens to leaders could help bring on the kind of change which has been the hallmark of the campaign.

Andrés Rozental, President of Rozental & Asociados, and former deputy foreign minister of Mexico: Barack Obama's overwhelming victory in the US elections augurs well for Latin America, although priorities for the new administration will probably be elsewhere during its first 100 days given the global financial and economic crisis, rising domestic unemployment and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, other important issues that will surely dominate Obama's foreign policy agenda during the first three months include the Middle East, Russia and continuing civil wars and unrest in Africa. I am hopeful that the president-elect will travel to our region before taking office in January, probably to Mexico, Brazil and Canada at a minimum, in order to establish more personal relationships with Presidents Calderon, Lula and Prime Minister Harper. As is probably the case throughout the United States and in a majority of the world, expectations are very high that the new president will bring major change to the way in which the US has related to its global allies, friends and adversaries. These expectations may not be met at the outset, at least not in any spectacular way, but just a change in language, as already signaled in Obama's victory speech in Chicago, will go a long way towards resuming a more constructive, closer and mutually beneficial relationship between the US and its hemispheric neighbors. Although there is no indication yet whether the new president will attend the G-20 Summit in Washington on November 15, that would certainly be an excellent opportunity for him to meet and begin to engage the leaders of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Canada, all of whom will be in attendance.

Albert Fishlow, Professor Emeritus at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs: Barack Obama's presidency, despite his campaign's modest concern with Latin America, will inevitably give greater weight to the region than has been true in recent years. Drugs and immigration will again command attention, and no longer-term national energy policy can fail to deal with ethanol produced far more cheaply from sugar cane than corn. Novelty should emerge in two forms. One is the need to recognize more adequately the swing to a democratic left symbolized by Brazil and Chile, and to give these countries greater weight in the process of reconciliation with Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. That does not mean endorsement of the ineffective economic strategies carried out by such nations; it does mean eliminating the United States as an excuse for such policies. Second is recognition of the greater future importance of Brazil and Mexico, not merely economically, but also politically. The G-7 is no longer adequate in the present world. That translates not merely to the current financial meltdown, but to present and future peacekeeping. Revitalizing Doha will not be simple within the new Congress, but it will be essential. American workers will not inevitably be losers if the US is able to lead the next round of technological advance and productivity gain. The UN Security Council equally requires updating, if advances in Mideast and African policies are to occur. Above all, such a strategy means a new bilateral and international emphasis to policy evolution with Latin America. The days of a possible regional policy, like the Alliance for Progress or FTAA, are finished.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter.



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