What’s at stake for Latin America in the next U.S. presidential election?

By Soledad Vega

Economic crisis, unemployment and healthcare are some of the pressing issues being addressed by candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in light of the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Recent developments in Syria, Libya and Egypt as well as uncertainty over Israel and Iran call for a new foreign policy strategy in the Middle East, leaving little room for discussions on Latin America, a topic that seems to have been out of the campaign trail. However, neither party wants to lose sight of the Latin American region on issues such as the fight against drug trafficking, commercial trade and the activity of leftist movements.

Republicans, who see an opening in Obama’s handling of national security, draw attention to potential “threats” to U.S. security from Cuba and especially from Venezuela, which they see as a “haven for terrorists”. While Obama considers Venezuela “no danger” to the U.S., Romney promises “to use every resource we have, short of invasion and military action to contain destabilizing forces”.

On the other hand, after the Latin American opposition to U.S. imposed sanctions on Cuba at the last Summit of the Americas failed to produce a final declaration, Obama is taking a more moderate and conciliatory stance with members of the region.

While Republicans blow the danger of anti-U.S. regimes in Latin America out of proportion, Democrats underestimate it. Nevertheless, there is a strong military presence in the Southern Cone. The deployment of the U.S. Fourth Naval Fleet and activation of several military bases across the continent will allow a U.S. intervention in any future conflict in the area within hours. This may not have to do so much with the fear of Venezuela’s direct actions, but rather with the potential entry of other countries like Russia into the territory, especially now that Chávez is investing heavily in equipping their defense with Russian weaponry.

It is not unreasonable to infer that left wing countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador would be pleased to see Obama reelected, while the most conservative countries favor the candidate that would undoubtedly take a more confrontational course against left-leaning governments in the region.

The efforts for trade promotion in Latin America are also an aim for both candidates. Both Democrats and Republicans are looking to stay close to countries like Colombia, Chile, and Brazil for their sudden and steady economic growth and more flexible trade policies. The U.S. doesn’t appear to fear these countries in an ideological sense, but Brazil is a rising player in the region and, judging from WikiLeaks cables, U.S. diplomats are very much aware it. Brazil is using its newfound economic strength to venture into world politics like never before. For the time being, Brazil and the United States maintain a cordial, if not exactly stellar diplomatic relationship, especially after an important cooperation agreement signed between both countries.

It is clear that regardless of who is elected, the next U.S. president will take into consideration the growing geopolitical influence of this South American giant, that now has some autonomy from Washington and is on its way of becoming a solid competitor for regional dominance.

For the first time in many years, we witness a decline in the U.S. influence over Latin America. The unprecedented Latin American opposition to U.S. sanctions on communist Cuba at the Summit of the Americas was a clear example. Meanwhile, the region continues to invest in efforts of regional, political, and economic integration that pointedly exclude the United States.

Both candidates should acknowledge that things have changed in how the United States intervenes in the affairs of Latin America. To regain clout in the territory, the next U.S. president will inevitably have to be prepared to deal with rivalries.

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