Latin Americans love Obama – so why the 'collective shrug' on reelection?

Obama is considered more popular in Latin America than his predecessor. But the region's self-confidence makes it feel far less buffeted by a particular president's outlook.

Jerome Delay/AP
Voters cast their ballots in a polling station set inside the Latin American Motorcycle Association Hall in Chicago, Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Leading up to the United States presidential election, Latin Americans, like Latinos in the US, widely favored the reelection of President Obama.

In fact, while attitudes about the US are conflicted here – and often far from glowing – America’s leader is widely respected. In the latest poll from the regional firm Latinobarometro in Chile, Latin Americans in 18 countries selected Obama as their favorite leader in the Americas.

So one would assume Mr. Obama’s victory Tuesday night over Republican candidate Mitt Romney for a second term in office would be heralded across Latin America, bringing a sense of optimism from Mexico City to Montevideo.

But instead, it’s been met with a collective shrug.

Amid economic problems at home, the US is focused on conflict in the Middle East and a recent "Asia pivot." Because of this, analysts across the region say the US is not expected to pay attention to the issues Latin Americans find most crucial, from immigration reform in Mexico, to a new bilateral relationship with an emerging Brazil, to the peace process underway in Colombia.

“I don’t really think it makes much of a difference if there is a Republican or Democrat in the White House. This is not only for Brazil but for Latin America in general,” says Arthur Ituassu, a political analyst at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro.

'Space for more autonomy'

Latin America grumbles about the scant attention it has received from the US post 9-11, a reality underscored by just a sprinkling of mentions of the region during presidential debates leading up to election night. Yet at the same time, its focus elsewhere is also seen as a blessing, and a sign of Latin America’s increasing independence.

“Obama paid very little attention to Latin America and Colombia [during his first term]. … But that is not a bad thing,” says Laura Gil, a political analyst in Bogota. “It gives space for more autonomy here, and gives space for Brazil to consolidate its leadership in the region.”

That does not mean that Latin Americans did not welcome Obama’s win, securing a historic second term as the US’s first black president.

In Mexico City, Guadalupe Hernandez stands in her newspaper kiosk of 25 years. Front-page photos of Obama dominate today. "I am happy they have given Obama a chance for another four years," Ms. Hernandez says. "He will support migrants," she says. Four of her six siblings are in the US without papers, living in California, New York, and Minnesota.

Of all Latin Americans, Mexicans are perhaps most impacted by the affairs of the US, sharing a 2,000-mile border, a drug and weapons problem, and booming trade. According to a poll before Tuesday’s election by the firm Mitofsky in Mexico City, 1 in 3 Mexicans said the election in the US was important. And they, like Latinos in the US who helped clinch Obama’s victory with record turnout, say they favor Obama. Thirty six percent of those surveyed said they wanted Obama to win, compared to just 6 percent who said they supported Romney.

“Mexicans favor Democrats, they believe Mexico will be better with a Democrat in power,” says Analicia Ruiz, an expert on US-Mexican relations at Anahuac University in Mexico City. “There is a fear that Republicans will take a harder line on foreign affairs, such as more vigilance at the border.”

Omar Cruz, a bricklayer in Mexico City, says that Romney's campaign showed an anti-immigrant zeal that does not bode well for him. The 20-something says he plans on heading to the US "as soon as the opportunity presents itself," he says. "I am happy Obama won."

But belief that Democrats will be better on migration is not based on evidence, Ms. Ruiz says. With the exception of the temporary reprieve that Obama granted this summer to young undocumented migrants brought to the US as children, Obama has been unable to push through any meaningful reform on immigration. His administration has also been behind record deportations of undocumented immigrants.

“In reality Obama hasn’t done anything for Mexico,” Ruiz says.

More status quo?

That sort of paradox, a strong favoring of Democrats despite skepticism that it makes a difference, is apparent across the region. It underscores, in some ways, a preference for Democrats not because there is great hope that Democrats care about Latin America, but that they are viewed as a better alternative to Republicans, who appear to many Mexicans, like Mr. Cruz, as virulently anti-immigrant and elsewhere as a destabilizing force for the world.

“After the cold war, the Republican Party has been very associated with wars and interventions,” Mr. Ituassu says. “Bush left a terrible image of the Republican Party in Brazil.”

And that matters for Brazil. While Ituassu expects the Obama win will do little in terms of politics, trade, or the economy in Brazil, he says, “I do think that with [the] Obama win, you can be more secure about international stability. And this makes a lot of difference for Brazil. We are in a very good moment. We do not want any international instability. We like the order as it is now.”

Apart from Cuba, where a 50-year-old American embargo is still in place, Venezuela has the most actively troubled relationship with the US in the region, a dynamic that holds whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House, says Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political analyst at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas.

The tone under a Romney administration may have given President Hugo Chavez more chance to spar as he did with former president George W. Bush – Mr. Chavez once famously called him a “donkey.” There is less leeway for that kind of insulting under the more popular Obama.

But this does not mean he will attempt to forge an alliance with Obama, or vice versa, says Mr. Carrasquero. “Chavez does not want a relationship with US,” he says. “He does not want the gringos around.”

That means, he says, more of the status quo: terrible political relations, and a solid commercial one, based mostly on American imports of Venezuelan oil.

Elsewhere in the region, where relations with the US are much warmer, there is still the sense that neither Democrats nor Republicans matter much to bilateral relations because, not only is the US preoccupied elsewhere, it continues to view itself as the hegemon in the Americas, says Ituassu. But the region has flourished over the past decade, with Brazil's emerging rise in the world, despite little attention from the US.

“The relationship is based on the fact that the US [sees itself] as the sole superpower in the hemisphere,” Ituassu says. “That conception,” no matter who won Tuesday night, “does not change.”

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