In My Opinion | Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Obama may help Latin America - without trying

Latin America is probably one of the farthest things from President Barack Obama’s mind, but there are several — largely domestic — reasons why, during his second term, he may become the best U.S. president for the region in recent times.

Let’s start with the obvious: Obama doesn’t have a history of special interest in Latin America.

When I interviewed him for the first time in 2007, he had never set foot in the region. And during his first term, unlike most of his predecessors, he didn’t come up with any grand plan for Latin America — granted, he had to focus on resurrecting the U.S. economy — and instead stated that his top foreign policy priority is Asia’s Pacific rim.

Still, he may end up being great for Latin America, for reasons that have very little to do with Latin America.

First, there are better-than-even chances that — emboldened by his 71-27 victory margin among Latino voters in the 2012 elections — Obama will be able to pass an immigration reform plan that could legalize many of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents in the United States.

That would be a godsend to the economies of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia and Ecuador. Most experts agree that once undocumented workers get legal status, they get better jobs and can send more money to their relatives back home.

According to Manuel Orozco, author of the new book Migrant Remittances and Development in the Global Economy, the $73 billion that U.S.-based undocumented workers send to Latin America annually is likely to increase by 18 percent if their immigration status is legalized. That would mean an extra influx of about $13 billion in 2014, Orozco told me.

Second, Obama’s new proposals to ban assault weapons in the aftermath of the most recent massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., would help reduce violence in several Latin American countries that are flooded with weapons smuggled from the United States.

Mexico, where more than 60,000 people have died in drug-related violence over the past six years, says 83 percent of the weapons seized in its territory are brought illegally from the United States. The Mexican government, alongside others, has demanded that Washington do something to ban sales of semi-automatic weapons and impose stricter controls on gun purchases.

Many Latin American officials say that, now that Obama can’t run for a new term, he will be freer to push harder for gun-control laws.

Third, the recent approval of marijuana legalization measures in Colorado and Washington state is likely to allow Obama greater flexibility in drug-related talks with Latin America.

Over the past year, the presidents of Guatemala, Uruguay, Mexico and Colombia, among others, have called for a serious debate on drug legalization with Washington. They say that four decades of drug interdiction programs have failed to curb trafficking, and that it’s time to divert more funds to education, drug prevention and rehabilitation.

Fourth, Obama’s stated intention to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, while mostly geared at Asian countries, would also benefit Latin American countries on the Pacific coast, including Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile.

The TPP could become the world’s biggest trade deal if Japan — the world’s third largest economy — decides to join.

Fifth, Obama’s likely appointment of Sen. John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State is expected to lead Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. — a supporter of greater U.S. cooperation with Latin America — to replace Kerry as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That’s good news to countries that rely on U.S. assistance.

My opinion: While most of these developments could indirectly help Latin America, there is one thing Obama could do that would have a direct — and more important — impact on the region. He could make good on his 2011 promise to bring the number of Latin American students in U.S. universities to 100,000, and the number of U.S. college students in Latin America by the same number by 2020.

Currently, there are only about 64,000 Latin American and Caribbean students enrolled in U.S. universities, compared with 168,000 Chinese and 73,000 South Korean students, and Latin America is falling increasingly behind Asia in education, science and technology.

As far as I know, Obama’s “100,000 strong in Latin America” program, which was expected to be supported by U.S. and Latin American companies interested in educating their own workforces, has not taken off. Obama’s biggest test in the region will be to get personally involved in order to get the money and make it happen.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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