Monday, 10 November 2008

Obama and Latin America

At the time of writing we assume that the public opinion polls are not wildly off the mark and that the American presidential inauguration on 20 January 2009 will be somewhat more historic than usual. If so, what can Latin America expect from an Obama administration?

The first thing to determine – presuming that he is not a closet communist-islamo-terrorist coke fiend, which, if true, probably makes the rest of this analysis rather redundant – will be whether Barack Obama is indeed as isolationist and anti-free-trade as he’s been portrayed in the campaign. While it’s true that the Obama campaign claims to be against CAFTA and aims to ‘fix’ NAFTA, if one looks at his main economic advisers, the group includes influential characters from the Clinton administration, which broadened and deepened the American free trade programme in general and free trade in the Americas in particular. Assuming this team has some influence in the transition and in the selection of the new economic team, it is unlikely that Obama will renege on existing trade agreements.

The second thing that has been made clear throughout the election campaign is that the personal aspect of Obama’s political discourse is fundamental to his worldview. Obama sees the world – including Latin America – like he seems himself; as a mix of conflicting and complimentary cultures, religions, races and, yes, interests, constantly competing for supremacy. This undoubtedly has certain limitations, but after eight years of ‘Country First’, where the interests of the region were subsumed to the (usually, national security) interests of the United States, this cosmopolitan view will be well received.

For a good part of the United States’ Hispanic community, the issue of Cuba is fundamental. It is easy to overstate the importance of Cuba in Floridian politics – the 2000 election was close, after all, because Florida does have a sizeable community of Democrats (in fact, more registered Democrats than registered Republicans). But if Obama wins in Florida, it will be in spite of a nuanced discourse regarding Cuba. While no American campaign would dare suggest something as bold as lifting the embargo, Obama has committed to relaxing rules for family visits to Cuba.

And, of course, there is his famous willingness to engage in high level talks with Cuba, as well as Chavez, Ahmadinejad, and the rest of the world’s Dr Evils. What the other countries in the region will be hoping is that Obama talks to them too. What little attention American foreign policy has paid to Latin America in recent years has been centred on troublemakers like Venezuela, or friends in trouble like Colombia. If the US is to avoid rewarding bad behaviour with lots of attention, an Obamian foreign policy should include the other regions and countries that have been missing the love over the last eight years.

Lastly, and from a strictly domestic point of view, perhaps the most interesting post-election question is whither the Republican Party. Will it conclude that its electoral troubles came from having nominated a centrist, or from having imposed on that centrist a more hard-line, base-inspired agenda (and running mate)? One clue to that answer lies in where the Hispanic vote has gone. Having made important in-roads with Hispanic-Americans on values-based issues, during the 2008 election the Republican Party (especially in its Palinized form) explicitly alienated this and other immigrant groups as it tried to shore up support amongst its target audience of ‘Real Americans’. In this way, the Hispanic vote may be seen as a barometer of the broader political mood in the US.