• A version of this post ran on the Foreign Policy Association blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
President Obama over the last four years has had as successful a record on Latin America as the last two presidents before him. It can be argued he has had some added success in the region considering luck and policy with Colombia gaining a handle on its own internal conflict and Cuba slowly reforming to a more open society. [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez and his mission to continue his fight to free his people from American colonialism is slowing due to his personal health, something that may calm anti-Chavez activists in the US and Venezuela if they can wrestle away his popular support in the upcoming election. Mexico unfortunately has been mired in violence since the Bush Administration and new initiatives may come into effect as legalizing narcotics and devaluing drugs may be the only way to deflate drug violence in the country, a policy change that will have a massive effect on the next presidential term or the next president.
Mitt Romney has published his Latin American policy goals online at Mittromney.com and can be found here. After a week of publicity focusing on the beginning of the Arab Winter, Romney has fallen off the media map while President Obama spends his time focusing on the Middle East. To throw some attention towards Mitt and away from the Arab world, I will discuss some of his policy initiatives below.
Romney starts out with a criticism on Obama’s last four years in office, but much of the attacks he takes on Obama were issues that preceded Obama and were issues that were not addressed during the Bush years. Many problems, like those of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia, were issues that were frozen in Congress for many years as Democrats and Republicans and their varied interest groups used the Colombia issue to freeze progress on an FTA. In reality, progress on FTAs in the region stopped after 9/11 and current FTAs like NAFTA became less strict as the US economy faded and US trade policy started to lose benefits it formally enshrined in many of its FTAs with two wars and a large trade deficit owed mostly to China. Early in its first term, the Bush Administration was negotiating the FTAA, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in 2001. After 9/11 all focus turned to the Middle East, and despite the ability for FTAs to be continued over the next eight years under Bush, no significant policy moves were made to engage and progress trade with Latin America. Romney’s main argument seems to be that under Romney’s Republicans, he would push through more lucrative FTAs, but neither Obama nor the Republicans did much over the last 12 years to push through these FTAs, and despite the delays in the US-Colombia agreement, it was finally done under Obama.
Romney continues in his commentary to speak about Honduras and Cuba and errors Obama has made in handling both issues. Firstly, to speak on Honduras, while it is a valid point of view to make, a lot of the support Obama had for [former President Manuel] Zelaya was more of a lack of attention to the issue rather than strongly supporting Mr. Zelaya. In addition, it is doubtful Obama will lose many votes over Honduras. The opposite effect may take shape, as to focus on Zelaya and Obama likely would make Romney look like he has little to criticize as opposed to gaining any support against Obama in this regard. While an opening of Cuba has more to do with internal Cuban decisions than any one US policy move, pushing US policy on Cuba in some cases may cause more damage than produce any results. Support for embargoes and visa restrictions has done little since the 1960s and interest in punishing Cuba has faded. While China slowly succeeds to become America’s largest trading partner, it is difficult for American politicians to criticize Cuba for something their largest future trading partner does on a regular basis.
In Romney’s details on his own policy plan on the region, he makes strong points on how he will re-engage with Latin America on democracy and trade. I do not know whether Obama will do the same, but for the US it would always be a positive approach to engage and stay engaged with Latin America. Two issues that are not addressed come apparent however. The issue of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America are of great concern and are mentioned quite a few times in his policy outline, but for those in the region it may show a continued focus on the Middle East as opposed to creating stronger ties in Latin America. There is no mention of issues that may concern Latinos in the US or Latin Americans, issues of immigration are never mentioned at all and it is a mistake to think that those in Latin America do not pay attention to those issues. It is more likely that immigration is at the top of their list of concerns, and likely that Iran is at the bottom. The real challenge in the region is one of America’s economic rival in Latin America, China, and with no mention on how US investment may compete or displace Chinese investment it seems that there is no effective future investment plan for Latin America. While he does mention Mexico briefly, he should have placed more focus on NAFTA and strong ties in the region. He completely leaves out any reference to trade and policy development with Brazil, and almost entirely ignores any positive relationships the US already have in the region.
Without much focus on Mexican immigration or its healthy economy, Mexico is mentioned at the end as almost a sole security issue. While deaths in Mexico do complete with those in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, he leaves out any economic discussion on Mexico and speaks on security issues without suggesting how they might handle future policy changes in the region. It is certain that new policy approaches will come from Latin America as Mexico and possibly Venezuela change direction with new governments. Future issues like legalization of narcotics or any alternative policy approaches apart from military options are not broached in Romney’s Latin America policy platform. While Romney offers little differentiation from Obama, it is expected that a more clear and logical and historically significant policy statement should be issued for his campaign. If he is not Bush, and not Obama, it still seems that he has yet to show he is different and how a Romney Administration will be different on Latin America.
– Rich Basas is a Latin America blogger and Europe blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read the blogs here for Latin America and here for Europe.