Latin America Warms Up to Obama

From the South Side to South America, Obama win translates into Spanish.

Nov. 5, 2008— -- Barack Obama's popularity with Latino voters is resonating throughout the United States, and beyond. Many people in Latin America welcome the election of the first black U.S. president as a hugely significant event. But apart from this historic moment, the United States' reputation with its southern American neighbors leaves much to be desired.

U.S. relationships in the region have not been overwhelmingly positive. Most countries on the continent believe that the United States suffers from a general lack of interest in Latin America, despite the abundance of Hispanic communities in the states.

Brazil, the largest economic power in the region, welcomed the Obama win as a change for the better. Left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called it an "extraordinary event" and appealed for more "active relations" between the United States and Brazil.

On the popular front, Obama captured the imagination of people who saw his win as a triumph of civil rights over the old ways. In the run-up to Brazil's own municipal elections this year, many politicians actually took on his name (made possible by a loophole in the electoral system) as a way of garnering more votes.

For Brazilians, the U.S. election took on the thrill of a dramatic "telenovela," as the home-grown soap operas are called.

"There had been a lot of anticipation and almost everyone you speak to is fascinated and enthralled by the U.S. electing a black president," Brazil analyst Josh Schneyer told ABC News.

"Brazil is such a racial melting pot, it has a significant black population but traditionally it has been hard for Afro-Brazilians to ascend to position of power, despite the very few exceptions."

About half of Brazil's population is black or mixed race; it's the largest black population outside of Africa and Obama's victory has offered hope that the country can also achieve similar, civil rights breakthroughs. Observers note Brazil's deeply ingrained forms of racism, which range from ordinary day-to-day attitudes to a lack of black political leaders, a holdover from the devastating slave trade that officially ceased in 1888.

Ordinary Brazilians were never the most ardent fans of President Bush. His laid-back attitude toward this ascending economic power was seen as patronizing and dated. During a visit to the region last year, Bush offered millions of dollars in aid for counter-narcotics initiatives, a gesture that was interpreted as condescending in light of Bush's perceived ignorance of the country.

"For an American president to arrive in the country and make a big announcement to free-up more aid more for Brazil and the rest of Latin America, it made many Brazilians think that Bush was missing the point in the region," Schneyer said.

On a more pragmatic level, local trade leaders, especially in Brazil's biofuel program, are perhaps the only people whispering concerns about Obama's win. Brazil exports more than 550 million gallons of ethanol -- made from sugar cane -- to the United States, the largest importer of the Brazilian-made biofuel.

Obama has spoken approvingly of Brazilian ethanol, but as the United States pursues its own fledging and somewhat controversial corn-based biofuel program, Brazilian traders are concerned that Obama might favor higher taxes on ethanol.

"Some Brazilians, including trade negotiators, are a little worried about his ethanol policies and democratic protectionism with agricultural policies, especially against Brazilian ethanol, which is a major export," analyst Schneyer said. "By now, everyone in the U.S. knows that Brazil produces cheaper ethanol than in the U.S., so Brazil has been hopeful it would strike down the tariffs, but Obama has not signaled that he would do that, although that would be up to Congress."

The rest of the region celebrated the result as a positive step toward solidifying relations between the continents. From Cuba, where the state paper, Granma, dedicated a spread to the news, to Bolivia, where President Evo Morales -- the country's first-ever indigenous president -- waxed lyrical about the achievement:

"Mr. Obama's victory is historic," Morales said in a televised address. "The national government congratulates him, because he is a man that comes from one of the most discriminated, enslaved sectors of society. I am sure he will continue making history."

In Colombia, Obama will face a challenge in the war against drugs. The recent $5 billion aid package -- known as Plan Colombia -- has not reached the stated goal of cutting narcotics production in half, according to a U.S. congressional report released on Wednesday.

Plan Colombia also caused a storm over the human rights violations that have occurred in its name, which include an upsurge in paramilitary activity and the murder of civilians, with many U.S. Democras believing that there should be a reduction in funds allocated to the plan. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has said that he welcomes a discussion with Obama on the subject.

"It would be good to talk with President Obama," Alvaro Uribe told local radio. "We have made a lot of effort and have results to show, though we are still not satisfied."

Ahead of the actual results this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in a rather subdued reaction, said, "Hopefully, with Obama, we will enter a new phase."

He also expressed a desire to meet with Obama but only "on equal and respectful terms."

Obama himself has attempted to dampen the anti-American feeling that Chavez often expresses in his numerous speeches and televised addresses.

"Generally, most people have been happy with Obama's win as the Democrats are perceived to look more favorably towards Latin America," Venezuelan journalist Fernando Jauregui told ABC News. "If Obama invites Chavez to the White House, he would be more than delighted to go and his attitude towards the U.S. will have to change."

And there's the rub. Now that "The Devil,"' as Chavez called Bush, is leaving the White House, it effectively leaves Chavez at a loss for a nemesis to whip up a dramatic bout of anti-U.S. sentiment.

"There are many people who are anti-Chavez that are upset by the fact that Obama has said that he is willing to speak with him," Jauregui said. "But on the other hand, 'anti-Chavistas' believe that with Obama in office, Chavez will not have a good enough excuse to fight against the U.S., at least not for a while or at least until Obama makes a statement that Chavaz will disapprove of."