Analysis: Obama and Romney Don't Care About Latin America

PHOTO: A zócalo is a central town square or plaza, usually located in Mexican cities. The most famous Zócalo is that of Mexico City. The government district of Mexico City is known after this. Zócalos were often the original central squares of Mesoamerica

We are almost through another presidential election and there has been a complete lack of serious discussion about U.S. relations with Latin America. In other words, it's become evident that the candidates just don't care. However they should. During the last two decades, thanks to globalization, U.S. and Latin American economies and societies have become increasingly linked. This new dynamic suggests politicians should place a new focus on how to take advantage of opportunities like Latin America's emerging middle class and reduce threats posed to mutual ties, like the violence and criminal activity of the drug war.

This week, I looked at Obama and Romney's Latin America policies, but there wasn't much there. What I could find were simply relics of the past. During last week's vice presidential debate, which was the first debate to include foreign policy questions, the words "Latin America" or "Mexico" were not mentioned once.

Romney mentioned Latin America twice during the presidential debate on Tuesday saying he would "dramatically expand trade in Latin America" as part of his economic plan. Alas, he provided no details. This may be because trade to Latin America is already expanding pretty rapidly and this will likely continue no matter who is president.

The only time the two candidates seem to talk about the region are when they are interviewed by reporters from Spanish-language media outlets who press them on drugs, security, trade, Venezuela and Cuba. If you don't watch Univision or read La Opinion, you are missing out on an important debate.

So, will anything change during the next four years? Probably not. Obama hasn't outlined any new policies during this campaign, but he does have a foreign policy record in the region, led mostly by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And Romney has shared little in the way of specifics. Here's where each stands on key issues in Latin America.

On Mexico

Let's start with Mexico, which is the U.S's second largest export market. Roughly six million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico, and as Mexicans move into the middle class, they are consuming more and more U.S. products. As the Financial Times pointed out recently in an op-ed, "Mexico is rapidly becoming as important to the U.S. economy as China." But you are unlikely to hear this on the campaign trail or in the debate hall.

Neither candidate has specifically addressed the economic importance of Mexico or discussed how to improve the efficiency of the border in regards to trade. Both tend to focus solely on immigration and security.

Romney says that he'll "use the full powers of the presidency to complete an impermeable border fence protecting our southern frontier from infiltration by illegal migrants, trans-national criminal networks, and terrorists." He fails to mention the impact that an impermeable fence might have on the $1 billion in trade that crosses the border each day. Both candidates have also promised to propose immigration reform if they win. However, again, they have offered few details.

On Trade

On trade to Latin America, Romney offers a few ideas but there are no specific targets or goals. During his first 100 days in office he says he will launch a trade promotion effort?called the Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America (CEOLA) focused on extolling "the virtues of democracy and free trade". He hopes this will draw a contrast between free enterprise and the authoritarian socialist model of Venezuela and Cuba and set the stage for membership to a new multilateral trade group called the "Reagan Economic Zone" (seriously). The REZ is meant to further liberalize trade between like-minded, pro-market nations and exclude China, which Romney has called a cheater and "currency manipulator."

President Obama has set the goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015 and oversaw the ratification of trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. However, the U.S. is slightly off track to double exports and it took him three years to send the trade agreements to Congress for ratification.

Both candidates have pledged to complete negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new free-trade agreement that includes 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region (including Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Peru) that want to further liberalize trade. Like Romney's REZ, it excludes China. Both candidates have said they would seek Trade Promotion Authority, which gives the president the ability to fast track approval of free-trade agreements.

Romney would try harder to get the TPP passed but there is no evidence that he would accomplish more on trade with Latin America than President Obama. Romney has said he wants more trade agreements with Latin America, but the countries without U.S. trade agreements like Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Cuba are not very interested in entering into one.

On Drugs and Security

Romney wants to create a unified "Hemispheric Joint Task Force on Crime and Terrorism" that builds on existing anti-drug and counterterrorism initiatives. He has also suggested exploring military-to-military cooperation and intelligence sharing with Mexico, similar to what was done in Colombia as part of Plan Colombia. While this is a commendable suggestion, Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto has already said that they are not open to joint armed operations.

Romney has also taken a more hawkish line on Venezuela, fearing their links to Iran and Hezbollah. By contrast, in July President Obama told an interviewer that Hugo Chavez "has not had a serious national security impact" on the U.S. Both campaigns have been light on details as to how they would change the dynamic of the failed drug war. President Obama has acknowledged that he would be willing to discuss the issue with the growing number of Latin American leaders that are calling for a change in strategy. Romney would be under more pressure from his party to maintain a hard line stance.

On Cuba

Romney would take a hard line against Cuba and the Castro brothers and reinstate the travel and remittance restrictions that were eased by President Obama. He supports the embargo and has said he would "use every resource we have, short of invasion and military action, to make sure that when Fidel Castro finally leaves this planet, that we are able to help the people of Cuba enjoy freedom."

Overall President Obama has taken a less-hawkish stance on the Castro regime than the Bush administration but he favors maintaining the embargo and keeping Cuba out of the Organization of American states until they adopt free and fair elections. Through the easing of travel and remittances restrictions President Obama has tried to show Cuba that he is open to a new relationship. "If we see positive movement we will respond in a positive way," he said in 2010.

On Brazil

Brazil is the world's sixth largest economy, a member of the G-20 and an important emerging market leader. I was thinking about leaving this section blank because neither candidate ever mentions the country on the campaign trail. The Romney campaign's issue page on Latin America does not even mention Brazil and the Obama administration has done little to advance gains made during the Bush administration.

While there would be some slight policy differences under a President Romney there are no overt signs that he would alter policy significantly or suddenly increase engagement with the region. Alternatively, it is unlikely that President Obama would pay more attention during his second term either. That is a shame. Both the U.S. and Latin America would gain a lot from a President who properly understood the value and benefits of better relations with Latin America.

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