4 years for Obama to address foreign policy in Latin America

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President Barack Obama re-election gives him four more years to address foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.

Obama, foreign policy, Latin America

Obama re-elected as president of U.S., experts will now question whether the 2012-2016 period of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean will look like the last four years (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

On November 6, Democratic President Barack Obama beat out Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, and will maintain his position as the U.S. head of state for four more years. With Obama’s re-election, experts will now question whether the 2012-2016 period of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean will look like the last four years, or if the United States will pursue a new policy in the region. Without the worry of re-election, Obama now has the opportunity to turn more attention to the Western Hemisphere, including addressing his own 2008 campaign promise to close the controversial detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, unlike four years ago, there seems to be less optimism in Latin America that major U.S. progressive foreign policy initiatives will take place in the near future, even though Obama managed to clinch the Latino vote in the recent elections.

Obama foreign policy toward Latin America

While President Obama made major foreign policy decisions toward several regions of the globe, like that of “resetting” relations with Russia or deploying special forces around the world to take out U.S. enemies, his foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean has been a bit more muddled. Throughout his first term, it was never clear whether Obama had a grand design for the region, like John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, or if he was just ignoring problems in the hemisphere until he finally had to address them.

It could be argued that Obama simply continued former president George W. Bush’s realpolitik policies toward the Western Hemisphere, particularly when it came to security affairs. Bush’s foreign policy for the region focused on issues like the war on drugs, which resulted in the creation of the infamous Merida Initiative and continued support of Plan Colombia. While Obama’s approach to the hemisphere is not as overt and lacks flashy titles, he has generally continued such initiatives. For example, under Obama the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) carried out the notorious “Fast and Furious” operation, in which guns were purposely sent to Mexican cartels. The idea was that the guns could be tracked and prosecutors could show that they were used by cartel members while committing crimes. Unfortunately the ATF lost track of most of the guns, and it was proven that some “Fast and Furious” weapons were used in the murder of a U.S. border guard in 2010. More recently, CIA agents were shot at in Mexico City, bringing up questions about whether the current intelligence and military relations between the White House and the Mexican government have changed under Obama.

Obama re-elected for four more years

Obama has pursued broader security initiatives as well, but they have not revealed any new U.S. attitude toward Latin America and the Caribbean. For example, Obama authorized the opening of several U.S. bases in Colombia after President Rafael Correa of Ecuador expelled the U.S. military presence in Manta. Furthermore, U.S. Southern Command has been considering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for anti-drug trafficking operations in the Caribbean and Central America. Drones are already flying over the U.S.-Mexico border. It would seem clear that Obama’s security policy toward Latin America has not been particularly different than Bush’s, and more of the same can be expected in his second term.

Ample space for growth

While Latin America is not as enthusiastic about Obama’s progressive initiatives as in 2008, it widely preferred the incumbent leader over the Republican challenger. In a recent analysis by Foreign Policy, opinion polls showed that if Latin America had the opportunity to participate in U.S. elections, Obama would have been re-elected by a wide margin. According to the polls, support for Obama in countries like Brazil, Colombia and Panama is above 60 percent.

It will be important for Obama to maintain this momentum in the next four years and complete the few positive initiatives that his administration started. The Obama White House managed to lift several travel restrictions to Cuba. However, in spite of major support for restoring relations with the island, the embargo remains in place. Without the worries of re-election, we may hopefully see some other restrictions toward Cuba lifted in the coming years. Similarly, it will be interesting to see if Washington allows a Cuban delegation to be present at the next Summit of the Americas, an initiative that has been supported by the rest of the hemisphere

Then again, there are some issues which are somewhat controversial and which the White House may choose not to address. An example of this is Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). During a 2011 trip to Brazil, Obama gave tacit support for Brazil’s bid for the UNSC position, but stopped short of fully supporting it. Nevertheless, it is likely that Obama will be able to spend another four years skirting the issue of UNSC reform. In addition, a June 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service explained that Obama’s foreign aid budget request for FY2013 for Latin America and the Caribbean is “nearly 9 percent less assistance than the region received in FY2012, and about 11 percent less than in FY2011.” It remains to be seen if the president’s second term in office will continue this decreasing trend.

Besides being re-elected, it is important to mention that while the Democratic Party had some significant success in the Senate races, it did not regain control of the House of the Representatives. Thus, we will have to wait and see if this new Congress, now with more Latino congressmen, will allow the Obama White House to pass more progressive initiatives in foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. One positive first step is that the president’s ambitious immigration initiative, the DREAM Act, which has yet to be passed by Congress, was passed in Maryland.  Nevertheless, a divided Congress likely means that other changes will be slow to occur. Even if Obama and his team decide to turn their attention to the Western Hemisphere, they may encounter opposition from Congress for any expensive new initiatives.

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