There's a running joke in Latin America that the region should be allowed to vote for the U.S. president because the outcome matters so much here.
But with less than two weeks to go before the election, the region is feeling left out of the race. With Pres. Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney focused on the U.S. economy and troubles in the Middle East, Latin America is getting short shrift on the campaign trail.
The final presidential debate this week on foreign policy, only underscored the point as Latin America was barely mentioned and both candidates seemed to try to answer every foreign policy question with a reference to the U.S. economy, said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue.
“The foreign policy debate turned into a discussion about nation building in the United States — not nation building in Colombia or even Afghanistan,” he said.
Just a few years ago, former President George W. Bush called Mexico the United States’ most important bilateral partner. The country was barely mentioned in the three presidential debates.
Latin America was a “second-tier, or third-tier, or perhaps no-tier issue,” Shifter said during a forum organized by the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy in Bogotá this week.
But in the globalized society, even far-flung political issues are at play in Latin America. When the candidates were asked about the pressing foreign issues of the day, they cited global terrorism, China and Iran. All three of those forces are at work in the region
Colombia is currently in peace talks with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC guerrillas, which are considered a terrorist organization by the United States. And those talks are being held in Cuba — the hemisphere’s only nation considered a state-sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. government.
China has been making huge inroads into Latin America, becoming a key trading partner for many nations.
And Iran has close ties to Venezuela. Presidents Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chávez have met almost a dozen times and the nations have announced more than 200 joint projects. Brazil — the hemisphere’s second-largest economy — is Iran’s largest trading partner in the region.
Venezuela and Cuba
Venezuela is where the two candidates’ rhetoric is perhaps most divergent. A few weeks ago, Obama said the Andean nation, which is also the United States’ fourth-largest supplier of oil, did not represent a danger to the United States.
Romney fired back, saying Chávez’s coziness with Cuba and Iran make him dangerous. The Republican platform spells out the position even more explicitly, calling Venezuela a “narco-terrorist” state and an “Iranian outpost in the Western Hemisphere” that is an “increasing threat” to the United States.
“We will stand with the true democracies of the region against both Marxist subversion and the drug lords, helping them to become prosperous alternatives to the collapsing model of Venezuela and Cuba,” the platform reads.
The GOP platform has also won praise from Miami’s Cuban exile community for its call to maintain sanctions until the Castro brothers are out of power and there are free and fair elections.
Obama has found fans among reformers for his willingness to engage with Cuba’s leadership and ease travel and remittance restrictions.
While the Democratic platform calls for “greater freedom” in Cuba and Venezuela, it provides few details.
U.S. fears about Venezuela and Cuba aren’t necessarily shared in the region. The United States staunchest ally in Latin America, Colombia, has publically praised both nations for shepherding peace talks with the FARC. And Cuba has been welcomed into multilateral bodies, such as the Alba and CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.
Both parties’ platforms highlight the need to fight drug cartels abroad, but don’t mention U.S. consumption. And they don’t address growing accusations in Latin America that Washington’s drug war has failed and is driving record violence in the region.
“The United States should be providing an energetic and proactive answer to those complaints,” said Bruce Bagley, a professor of international relations at the University of Miami.
But tackling the issue would mean taking on the powerful gun lobby and broaching the subject of treatment programs, or even legalization — both political kryptonite during an election year, wrote Ted Piccone, a senior fellow and deputy director at Brookings.
Latin America is torn by “violent crime, drug trafficking, and guns,” he wrote in Foreign Policy. “The United States is a responsible party on all these issues. We buy the cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana that flow across our borders, and we sell the weapons that fuel the traffickers’ gruesome attacks.”
The one issue both sides agree on is the need for more trade with Latin America to pull the United States out of its economic doldrums. The Obama administration can take credit for passing free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama last year, and has been pushing U.S. exports to the region.
But Romney says Obama should have done even more.
“The opportunities for us in Latin America we have just not taken advantage of fully,” Romney said during Monday’s debate. “As a matter of fact, Latin America’s economy is almost as big as the economy of China. We’re all focused on China. Latin America is a huge opportunity for us.”
Colombian Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas praised Romney for repeatedly pointing out the potential of North-South trade. But he also thanked the Obama administration for its support in Colombia’s bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD.
The hemisphere’s powerhouse Brazil — the world’s eighth-largest economy, just ahead of the United Kingdom — was never mentioned in Monday’s debate and isn’t mentioned at all in the GOP platform. The DNC platform praises the country’s vibrant democracy and concedes its growing importance, but offers few details about engagement.
In many ways, the fact that Washington isn’t focused on Latin America is a sign that the region has progressed, said Bagley. It’s no longer considered the war-torn narco-haven of the 1980s that threatened the hemisphere.
“From the point of view in Washington, the world is a dangerous place,” he said, “but Latin America isn’t.”
But the spotlight is likely to return once the race is over, said Susan Purcell, the director for UM’s Center of Hemispheric Policy.
“Everybody says they’re going to focus on domestic issues but they can’t withdraw from the world,” she said. “Either Obama or Romney are going to be spending a lot of time on foreign policy.”