The View From Down Here: What Four More Years Means for Latin America

This is a collaborative piece written by my coworker Lucas Radicella and I. It originally appeared on The Argentina Independent on November 7th, 2012.

Obama and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff (photo: Wikipedia)

Obama and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff (photo: Wikipedia)

As Barack Obama prepares for his second term as president of the United States, he is faced with a series of issues pertaining to Latin America, a major regional trading partner and hemispheric neighbour.

With a few exceptions, Latin America was conspicuously absent from much of the campaign dialogue. As Fernanda Kobelinsky wrote for Infobae, in “the current state of affairs, with a Chinese commercial threat, a Europe in crisis, and the Arab World in convulsions, our region doesn’t present any great challenges.”

That said, Latin Americans still can’t help but speculate as to what four more years of an Obama White House will mean for the region. From drug violence in nearby Mexico, to the continued embargo against Cuba, the region faces problems both old and new. What remains to be seen is how – and if – Obama will handle these pressing issues.

Venezuela

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who himself won re-election for another six-year term last month, has expressed his support for the president, stating in September: “If I was from the US, I’d vote for Obama. [He is] a good guy.”

This amicable attitude is only Chávez’s most recent disposition towards the former Illinois senator, in a relationship that has ranged from tentative admiration to outright contempt since Obama’s inauguration in 2009.The two heads of state suffered strained relations in 2009 when the US accused the Venezuelan government of providing support to Colombian FARC rebels.

The relationship has since warmed, however, strengthened no doubt by the two countries’ strong business ties. Despite the rhetoric and occasional vitriol hurled back and forth across the Caribbean, Venezuela remains one of the United States’ top five oil suppliers, while the US is the oil-rich nation’s biggest market, importing close to a million barrels per day as of August 2012.

Chávez implied that last night’s elections signified a shift in the mind-set of the North American public away from the conservative policies of Republican politicians, and expressed hope that the two countries would normalise relations

His sentiments echo those of many Venezuelans who view Obama as, if not cut from the same cloth as Chávez, then at least a far cry from right-wing US politicians.

“For all the deaths he’s caused, he’s not touched Latin America,” Caracas resident Miguel Bigello told CNN. “The other guy [Mitt Romney] is too radical. He will fight here for the oil.”

In a campaign season that was otherwise largely devoid of any mention of Latin America, Venezuela was cited as a “threat to national security” by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who compared Chávez to Cuban ex-president Fidel Castro and suggested that he would cease dialogue with the leftist government.

It remains to be seen if this thaw in relations will continue over the next four years, or if the US and Venezuela will once again take up their roles as ideological antagonists. A major factor in the outcome will be the role of China, which may displace the US as Venezuela’s major purchaser of oil.

Cuba

Both international analysts and Cubans remain undecided as to how or whether Barack Obama’s re-election will affect relations between the quarrelsome neighbouring countries. The socialist island nation remains under a 52-year-old embargo, the world’s longest-running trade sanction.

During his first term, President Obama eased travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans (who, under the previous Bush administration, could only visit Cuba once every three years), lifted travel restrictions for educational purposes, and made it easier for tour groups to visit the island as “people-to-people” ambassadors. The Cuban government, for its part, lifted restrictions on its citizens wishing to travel abroad, in a law that will go into effect in January 2013.

Critics argue, however, that this progress is long-overdue and accuse Obama of not properly addressing pressing issues such as the embargo, Cuba’s controversial status as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, as well as the closing of the North American facilities at Guantanamo Bay.

Analysts have pointed out that the vote of the influential Cuban-American community of Florida, a critical swing-state in US elections, may have caused Obama to tread lightly when addressing controversial issues regarding Cuban relations. Whether he takes the same approach now that he doesn’t have another re-election to consider is a question posed on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Mexico and Brazil

On the economic front Obama will have to continue dealing with the two Latin American powerhouses Mexico and Brazil. They both face very different problems and hold very different positions towards the United States.

In a poll carried out by BBC Brazil, a large majority of Brazilians said they would prefer Obama to Romney. However despite this preference there was no real enthusiasm in Brazil over the US elections as many feel the North American superpower continues to ignore its Southern neighbours. Brazil has had a rocky relationship with the United States in the last decade. In 2002 left-leaning Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva was elected on a platform of radical social and economical change that worried many in the US and international financial institutions.

Although falling well short of the IMF and United States’ worst predictions, during his two terms in power Lula implemented a number of nationalisation policies and increased Brazilian protectionism. So has his successor and former chief of staff, President Dilma Rousseff. This has led to tension with the US who in turn has imposed protectionist trade restrictions against the South American country.

Republican governments have a tradition of non-intervention in economic matters and a Romney presidency might have led to a lifting of these restrictions, but Obama’s next four years do not promise much difference. Despite this President Rousseff said a few months ago that Brazil “very much welcomes the major improvements that have been found in the US economy in the recent past, and I am quite certain that that will very much be the emphasis in the next few months and years ahead under the capable leadership of President Obama,” counting on his re-election.

Brazil is likely to continue relying more heavily on regional cooperation within Mercosur, the South American Common Market that includes Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Venezuela. Brazil will also look to continue developing its ties with the other BRIC countries, Russia, India, and especially China.

The case of Mexico differs radically from that of Brazil in that it shares a 3,000km long border with its northern neighbour. The result of this geographical proximity is a strong dependence on many issues but particularly in economic and security terms. The economic cooperation between Mexico and the US has continued increasing since they signed a free trade agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. The US is by far Mexico’s largest trading partner with roughly half of Mexico’s imports coming from north of the Rio Grande.

This cooperation is not likely to change with Obama’s re-election or president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto’s inauguration in December, as both have acknowledged the importance of one another in their respective economies. However one of the largest security threats to the US, the increasing power of Mexico’s drug cartels, was not mentioned once during the presidential debate on foreign policy between the two candidates.

The so-called War on Drugs started by President Felipe Calderón in 2006 has resulted a complete failure. Over 65,000 lives have been lost and US$1 trillion spent (US$15.5bn by Obama for 2011 alone) on the War on Drugs and yet cocaine is cheaper and more easily available in the United States than ever. As many as 1,000 arms per day flow south from the US into Mexico and arms sales regulation still remains a taboo issue for United States’ presidential candidates.

“We have to look at our own corruption, the terrible impunity and lack of justice. We have to fix these problems ourselves, not wait for Obama or Romney. But that Mexico didn’t even warrant one line in the last debate, when we have thousands dead, and even two CIA agents nearly killed in an ambush recently – that tells you that the US – Mexico relationship is not going to change,” Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez, told Susana Seijas reporting for CNN.

It seems that four more years of Obama’s government is unlikely to provide any breakthrough on the issue. The only hope from the US on the drug issue will probably come at state level if others choose to follow similar steps as Washington and Colorado that recently legalised the recreational use of marihuana.

Content originally appeared at The Argentina Independent.

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