Will Obama and Romney broach Latin America in tonight's debate?

From Hezbollah and Iran in the Americas to free trade agreements, Romney and Obama could discuss an array of important regional topics during tonight's final debate. But will they?

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Lynn University students A.J. Mercincavage, stand-in for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (l.) and Eric Gooden, stand-in for President Obama shake hands on stage during testing for Monday's presidential debate, Sunday, Oct. 21, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

• A version of this post ran on the Foreign Policy Association blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

Long-term policy goals by America’s neighbors have made them some of the best performing economies worldwide. Unfortunately, America’s backyard has received little attention from the Obama administration and even less attention during the Bush years. During the recent [presidential] debates there have been some mention of Canada and Mexico, but an overarching emphasis on security has led to a lack of vision in seeing America’s allies as strong economic partners and viable sources of growth for the US economy.

The Obama administration can be faulted for two major policy failures in the region since 2008. The first issue is related to America’s energy security. Mr. Romney mentioned the lack of progress on the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada twice during the Oct. 16 debate, placing the idea of a secured North American energy system at the front of his campaign platform. Some discussions have taken place in Canada labeling oil from the Middle East as “conflict oil” because it places the United States in direct conflict with unfriendly regimes in that region. Some Canadian commentators see the pipeline as an eventual outcome for either administration, as any conflict with Iran will push either candidate to accept Canadian oil over alternative sources abroad.

RELATED: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

The second issue may not be the one that ends Obama’s chances at a victory in the upcoming election, but it will likely affect his legacy whenever he ends up leaving office. The complicated and bloody drug conflict on the US-Mexico border cannot accept errors like the "Fast and Furious" [operation] when the loss of life in the wider conflict mirrors that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined. While security should not dominate the US-Mexico relationship, errors like Fast and Furious are unacceptable to those in the US and Mexico battling the cartels on either side of the border.

Romney has weighed in on the debate on US relations with Latin America on his campaign website. In his published online platform on Latin America, Romney starts out with a criticism of Obama’s last four years in office. Unfortunately, Romney shows little change to Bush’s strategy. Like Bush, Romney has an overly ambitious free trade agreement strategy that is secondary to his security policy. Large free trade regimes will likely fail in practice if security policies dominate US-Latin American relations. This was best reflected in early 2001 when the Bush Administration was negotiating the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. After 9/11, all focus turned to the Middle East, and despite the ability for free trade agreements to be continued over the next eight years under Bush, no significant policy moves were made to engage and produce significant trade agreements with Latin America.

Romney’s main argument seems to be that under [his administration], he would push through more lucrative free trade agreements, but neither Obama nor the Republicans did much over the last twelve years to push through any noteworthy agreements. Many problems, like those of the free trade agreement with Colombia, were issues that were frozen in Congress for many years as Democrats, Republicans, and varied interest groups used the Colombia issue to freeze progress on the agreement for their own specific interests. While Romney criticizes Obama over delaying the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the political points gained by passing the agreement goes to Obama as the US-Colombia agreement was passed by his administration.

Romney continues in his published commentary to speak about Honduras and Cuba and errors Obama has made in handling both issues. Firstly, to speak on the 2009 Honduras [coup]: While it is a valid point of view to take, a lot of the support Obama had for [former President] Zelaya was more of a lack of attention to the issue rather than strongly supporting Zelaya. In addition, it is doubtful Obama will lose many votes over Honduras.

The opposite effect may take shape [for Romney]. To focus on Zelaya would make Romney look like he has little to criticize [in Obama's approach] as opposed to gaining any support against Obama in this regard. Secondly, Romney’s overly proactive stance on Cuba may come across as a simple punishing of Cuba, a policy that has faded in popularity over the last few years. Cuba has been opening on its own, and past support for embargoes and visa restrictions has done little since the 1960s.

The issue of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America are mentioned quite a few times in Romney’s Latin American 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. Issues that may concern Latinos in America, like immigration, are rarely mentioned in his Latin American policy platform. It is a great mistake to think that Latin Americans do not pay attention to those issues, as US immigration also affects millions of those living in the region. Indeed, those issues are of great importance and it is more likely that immigration is at the top of their list of concerns, and that Iran is at the bottom.

RELATED: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

There is almost no mention of Latin American economic powerhouses in his platform. While Mitt Romney does mention Mexico briefly, he should have placed more of a focus on NAFTA and Mexico’s economic boom. To my surprise, Romney completely leaves out any reference to trade and policy development with Brazil. He almost entirely ignores any positive relationships the US already has in the region. Future issues like the legalization of narcotics or any alternative policy approaches apart from military options are not broached in Romney’s Latin America policy platform and President Obama has done little to acknowledge the growing debate on legalization in Mexico and Latin America. As it currently stands, neither candidate can claim any significant policy approaches on America’s southern border.

While Romney offers little differentiation from Obama, it is expected that a more logical and historically significant policy statement should be issued for his campaign. If he is not Bush, and he is not Obama, it still seems that he does not show with any significant detail how a Romney administration will approach Latin America differently. Barack Obama also needs to refocus his efforts on Latin America, as for both candidates the region is being showered with Chinese investment from Argentina up to Canada without any American response. Hopefully some of the above concerns will be debated during [tonight's] foreign policy debate, as America’s neighbors are important supporters of the United States and are models of economic success in a weak global economy.

– 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.

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