Latin America and the United States: The more things change
The neighbours’ tepid enthusiasm for Barack Obama
OF THE two candidates in the American presidential election, it is John McCain who knows something about Latin America. Not only was he born in Panama, he also visited Colombia and Mexico in July. He thinks the United States should ratify a free-trade agreement with Colombia and, at least until it became politically toxic, wanted to reform immigration policy. Ask him who the United States’ most important friends around the word are and he pretty quickly mentions Brazil.
And yet if they had a vote, Latin Americans, like Europeans, would cast it for Barack Obama—though without much enthusiasm. Preliminary data from the latest Latinobarómetro poll, taken in 18 countries over the past month and published exclusively by The Economist, show that 29% of respondents think an Obama victory would be better for their country, against only 8% favouring Mr McCain. Perhaps surprisingly, 30% say that it makes no difference who wins, while 31% claim ignorance. Enthusiasm for Mr Obama is particularly high in the Dominican Republic (52%), Costa Rica, Uruguay and Brazil (41%). In Brazil, six candidates in this month’s municipal elections changed their names to include “Barack Obama” in them.
The poll suggests that support for Mr Obama is greater among better-educated Latin Americans. Marta Lagos, Latinobarómetro’s director, says the relatively widespread indifference shows the extent to which the United States has lost influence in the region in recent years.
An adopted Texan with a Mexican sister-in-law, George Bush came to office promising to strengthen ties with the neighbours to the south. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 introduced new priorities. Latin Americans were hostile to the war in Iraq, perhaps because some countries in the region had suffered American-backed efforts at regime change in the past. Mr Bush was seen as doing little to help when Argentina’s economy collapsed in 2001. His administration then seemed to endorse a failed coup attempt against Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chávez.
In Mr Bush’s second term, American policy towards the region has been very different in tone. The administration has sought to work with allies such as Brazil, Mexico, and Chile. It has tried hard not to be provoked by Mr Chávez, and by other radical leftist governments. Mr Bush has talked about the need to fight poverty. Whoever wins next month is likely to adopt a broadly similar approach.
But several of the United States’ foreign-policy concerns in Latin America—trade, migration, illegal drugs and Cuba—are also domestic issues. Take trade. Mr McCain is a committed free-trader. Mr Obama has said he will seek to “renegotiate” the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. He also opposes the trade agreement with Colombia, citing murders of trade unionists there (although these have fallen steeply, and their perpetrators increasingly face justice). This alarms Mexican officials and disappoints those of Colombia. But Mr Obama adopted this stance because voters worry about the loss of manufacturing jobs, and because it chimes with his union backers.
If Mr Obama wins, he may set up a general review of trade policy and of the safety net for those who lose their jobs. That might make it politically possible for him not to sour relations with the neighbours by trying to reopen NAFTA, reckons Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington, DC. He thinks that the Colombia trade agreement will eventually be approved.
Less separates the two candidates on migration. Both support stronger border control. Neither offers anything new on illegal drugs (both men voted for the Mérida Initiative, granting aid to Mexico, and both back Plan Colombia). There is a clearer difference on Cuba. Mr McCain is an enthusiastic supporter of the American economic embargo against the island. In a speech in Miami, Mr Obama promised to lift Mr Bush’s restrictions on family visits and remittances by Cuban-Americans, but not the embargo itself.
Mr Obama pledged to increase foreign aid to Latin America, but financial turmoil is likely to put paid to that. Unlike Mr McCain, he supports the tariff against Brazilian ethanol. Yet Brazil’s government would feel more comfortable with Mr Obama than it has with Mr Bush, according to one minister. That goes for many of the region’s left of centre governments.
Would an Obama victory serve to reduce anti-Americanism in the region?
Ms Lagos reckons that it might, because expectations of change are so low.
It would be harder for Mr Chávez to portray Mr Obama as “the devil”,
as he did Mr Bush. But the issues that divide the United States from Mr
Chávez and his friends are not about to disappear, says Mr Shifter.