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LATAM LETTER Nov-5-2008 (950 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Analysts: When dealing with Latin America, Obama faces complexities

By Barbara J. Fraser
Catholic News Service

LIMA, Peru (CNS -- Although President-elect Barack Obama will inherit a worldwide financial meltdown and several wars, he must not neglect the region south of the American border, which is tied to the United States by bonds of trade and remittances, immigrant labor and illegal drugs, said some analysts.

Latin America will be watching to see how the new chief executive deals with intractable problems like civil war and cocaine production in Colombia and drug-related violence in Mexico and Central America, as well as governments often viewed as hostile to U.S. interests, such as those in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Cuba.

While the region will give Obama a good-will grace period, he must use it wisely, said Farid Kahhat, head of the international politics department at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

The new president "will have a blank check but for a limited time," Kahhat told Catholic News Service. "Obama will not only have the benefit of the doubt, which (current President George W.) Bush does not have; he will also have a measure of sympathy that the Bush administration never had. He needs to wield that soft power very carefully."

Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said Obama must understand that "Latin America is very much a changed region."

"The old stereotypes are completely irrelevant. Old reflexes of paternalism, which have been shared by Democrats and Republicans, should be discarded," he said.

U.S. trade with Latin America topped $500 billion last year, and the Inter-American Development Bank expects immigrants from the region to send more than $67 billion back home this year. Despite those figures, however, 40 percent of Latin Americans live in poverty, and the gap between rich and poor is wider there than anywhere else in the world.

While it is common to speak of the region stretching from the U.S.-Mexican border to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America as though it were a homogeneous entity, the differences among countries and subregions require a more nuanced foreign policy.

Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean have strong ties to the United States because of cultural bonds and the northward migration of laborers who send cash home, Shifter said, while the more distant South American countries have formed their own political and trade blocs.

But while many Latin Americans long to pursue the American dream north of the border, the U.S. image in the region has dulled in recent years, Kahhat told CNS.

That tarnishing has come partly from benign neglect and partly from disenchantment with U.S. policies like the war in Iraq, which was supported by only a handful of countries in the region.

During the campaign, the candidates devoted little time to Latin American issues.

In a 2007 speech to the Florida Association of Broadcasters, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who lost to Obama Nov. 4, noted that "the United States has treated Latin America as a junior partner rather than as a neighbor" and called for the Americas to become "a new model of relations between the developed and the developing world."

McCain had sharp words for countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which have opposed the United States.

In a speech in May, Obama also criticized Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but focused especially on gang activity and drug and human trafficking south of the border, noting that combating the violence also meant stopping the flow of guns, money and vehicles southward from the United States. He expressed caution about some free-trade agreements and called for an energy partnership with the region.

The candidates differed on Cuba, with McCain focusing on support for dissidents while Obama pledged to lift restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting or sending money to relatives on the island.

Both candidates tiptoed around the Andean region, which is both troublesome and complex. The Bush administration has tended to divide it into pro-U.S. and pro-Chavez camps, but the reality is more nuanced.

"People tend to see coalitions where they don't exist," Kahhat said.

While the presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador, who were elected on pledges to give a greater voice to poor and indigenous citizens, are seen as friendly to Chavez, they also have set limits. Both stayed in the Andean Community when Venezuela pulled out, and Ecuador has not joined the political pact known as ALBA, which Chavez promotes.

And while Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a strong U.S. ally, frequently spars with Chavez, his political rhetoric is tempered by Colombia's more than $5 billion in exports to Venezuela. Even U.S. critics of Chavez remember that Venezuela is the United States' fourth-largest provider of foreign oil.

Colombia is another thorny problem for Obama. Obama had mentioned labor and human rights abuses that have held up ratification of a free-trade agreement with the South American nation; he defended Colombia's cross-border attack on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador in May. That raid, which killed 20 people, including a top guerrilla leader, drew sharp criticism from most Latin American governments.

But despite the many issues linking the United States with its southern neighbors, with a looming recession and troops fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Latin America is likely to remain an "afterthought" in U.S. policy, Kahhat said.

"The United States can regain legitimacy and appreciation from some sectors of society and some governments, but that will depend on how it acts," he said. "It needs to act with consensus, not like a government that is trying to impose its will."

Above all, Kahhat said, the new U.S. president "must act with common sense."


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