Candidates Stay the Course on Latin America

Presidents of Paraguay Fernando Lugo and Venezuela Hugo Chavez (R) sing during the Ara Pyahu festival in Asuncion August 15, 2008. Even as Democratic Nominee Barack Obama tries to contrast his foreign policy agenda with John McCain's, there are disappointing similarities in their Latin American policy. From maintaining the embargo against Cuba to expanding efforts to fight the war on drugs in Mexico and Colombia, McCain and Obama support most aspects of current U.S. policy toward Latin America. (REUTERS/Miraflores/Handout)

Candidates Stay the Course on Latin America

WASHINGTON - With an election to replace an immensely unpopular president just weeks away, Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama have both sought to distance themselves from the record of George W. Bush -- but when it comes to Latin America, neither candidate promises a major break with the policies of the last eight years.

From maintaining the embargo against Cuba to expanding efforts to fight the war on drugs in Mexico and Colombia, McCain and Obama support most aspects of current U.S. policy toward Latin America. Indeed, outside of their shared pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, there is little to suggest that either candidate would overhaul the Bush administration's approach to the region.

In general, issues concerning Latin America have not played much of a role in the current U.S. presidential campaign, generally taking a backseat to concerns about high gas prices and a struggling economy. When the region has been discussed, it has usually been within the context of a broader discussion of national security issues, as happened during a July 2007 debate among contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In response to a question on whether to diplomatically engage countries considered hostile to the United States, Obama declared that he would be willing to meet directly with leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Obama's position -- at the time ridiculed as 'naive' by members of his own party -- contrasts sharply with the Bush administration policy, endorsed by McCain, of refusing to engage in direct diplomacy with leaders such as Chavez and Cuba's Raul Castro.

But while Obama's openness to meeting with controversial leaders is welcomed by critics of current U.S. policy, some analysts see little evidence that the agenda he would push in those meetings would be noticeably different than that of the current administration.

'He has adopted some of the same hostile rhetoric toward Venezuela, pledged to maintain the embargo on Cuba, and even showed support for Colombia's March 1 raid into Ecuador,' writes Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research.

'Against these statements, Obama's expressed willingness to possibly meet with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro do not offer much cause for optimism, and indeed there is not much hope for change among Latin American diplomats here in Washington.'

Among other Bush policies, Obama has endorsed the so-called Merida Initiative, a more than 400-million-dollar aid package to assist security forces in Mexico and Central America in combating illicit drug traffickers and 'narco-terrorists'. Approved by the U.S. Senate in June, the plan has been strongly criticised by human rights groups, with critics noting that the Mexican military -- which is to receive the bulk of the funds under the initiative -- has a long record of torture and extrajudicial killings.

In addition, Obama's running mate, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, is a vocal supporter of anti-drug efforts in Latin America who boasts of having been a strong advocate for 'Plan Colombia'. After more than 35 years in the U.S. Senate, Biden has also gained a reputation as an outspoken proponent of U.S. intervention in general, having supported both the Iraq war and the NATO bombing of Serbia.

In keeping with the increasingly hawkish tone of his campaign, in March Obama joined the Bush administration and McCain in backing Colombia's controversial raid inside Ecuador that killed a top FARC official. Condemned by the Organisation of American States as a violation of international law, Obama declared that his administration would always 'support Colombia's right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders.'

Obama has, however, broken with Bush and McCain on trade policy involving Latin America, opposing both the Central American Free Trade Agreement and a pending trade agreement with Colombia. Obama did support a controversial trade deal with Peru in 2007, but has promised to as president sign only agreements that contain strong protections for the environment and organised labour.

Yet despite a number of high-profile differences with the Bush administration, Obama has reversed himself on several key issues facing Latin America, lending credence to the view that an Obama administration would lead more to continuity in U.S. policy than actual dramatic change.

In response to a 2003 questionnaire during his run in Illinois for the U.S. Senate, Obama stated that U.S. drug policy had been unsuccessful 'both abroad and at home', and declared that the embargo against Cuba had been a 'miserable failure'.

'I believe that normalisation of relations with Cuba would help the oppressed and poverty-stricken Cuban people while setting the stage for a more democratic government once Castro inevitably leaves the scene,' Obama stated.

Five years later, Obama's position on the embargo is nearly identical to that of President Bush and to the eight presidents who preceded him -- although Obama has vowed that, if elected, he would allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island by Cuban Americans.

'I will maintain the embargo,' Obama declared in a May 23 speech in Miami, Florida -- home to a large and politically influential Cuban-American population. 'It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalising relations.'

In 2000, John McCain also sounded markedly different when discussing Cuba, especially compared to the hard-line rhetoric he has employed during the 2008 campaign.

'I'm not in favour of sticking my finger in the eye of Fidel Castro,' McCain said in an interview with CNN. 'In fact, I would favour a road map towards normalisation of relations such as we presented to the Vietnamese and led to a normalisation of relations between our two countries.'

But in a speech earlier this year -- also in Miami -- McCain made clear that any path toward normalising relations with Cuba under his administration would take place only after there have been serious political reforms on the island nation, including the freeing of political prisoners and the establishment of internationally monitored elections.

'The embargo must stay in place until these basic elements of democratic society are met,' McCain said, echoing official U.S. policy toward Cuba for nearly five decades.

Still, with two ongoing military occupations in the Middle East and increasingly hostile relations with Russia, it is unlikely U.S. foreign policy resources will be focused on Latin America regardless of who wins in November.

'After years of disappointment, Latin Americans have few expectations for dramatic change,' writes Michael Shifter of the Washington-based think tank, Inter-American Dialogue. While 'Obama's message of 'change' appeals to a region suffering from 'Bush fatigue' after eight years,' Shifter states, it is far from clear that he could push for major changes in U.S. policy even if he were so inclined.

That said, Shifter notes that both major party candidates have committed to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and have signaled they would seek greater engagement on regional issues with Latin American leaders.

'Even absent a sharp departure in policy, those steps alone will go a long way towards improving relations with Latin America and the Caribbean.'

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