Commentary

Invisible Issue: Latin America in the US Presidential Campaign

Prior to the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi and the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel, foreign policy played little role in the 2012 race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Even now, the discussion of foreign policy focuses almost exclusively on two regions. One is East Asia, where the candidates vie to see who can be tougher on China — especially on Beijing’s perceived misdeeds in the trade realm. The other region is the Middle East, which is fast becoming an obsession in the Romney camp. America’s relations with other areas of the world receive only marginal attention. That is true even of the long-standing centerpiece of Washington’s foreign policy, the transatlantic relationship.

Another part of the world that has been nearly invisible in campaign speeches and ads is Latin America. The only partial exception is Mexico, but the discussion of even that issue is largely confined to vague, emotional outpourings about border security and illegal immigration.

The general lack of attention to Latin America in the presidential race is unfortunate, since developments in the region have important diplomatic, economic, and security implications for the United States. There are three clusters of issues that deserve greater discussion in terms of both quantity and quality. One is the US relationship with Mexico — beyond border security and immigration. A second set is the deteriorating security environment in Central America related to the growing presence of the Mexican drug cartels. And the third cluster is Washington’s relationship with the newly re-elected Hugo Chavez as President of Venezuela and what his electoral victory implies for the strength and durability of authoritarian populism in the Western Hemisphere.

Whether Obama or Romney is president in January 2013, he will be dealing with a new, and less conservative, president in Mexico. Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in his country’s July presidential election restores the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power after twelve years during which the National Action Party controlled the presidency. Peña Nieto’s policy prescriptions are still somewhat vague, and his victory with a mere plurality in a three-way race does not give him or his party a strong mandate.

From what we can discern, he seems serious about cleaning up the notoriously corrupt PRI and making the party more receptive to free-market economic reforms. His views on the disastrous drug war that outgoing President Felipe Calderón pursued, resulting in the deaths of more than 55,000 people, remain murky. However, Peña Nieto appears inclined to de-emphasize that conflict and perhaps even strike some tactical truces with some of the drug cartels.

Washington needs to be patient with Peña Nieto’s administration and recognize that the United States has a vital, multifaceted relationship with Mexico. US leaders should not push him to continue Calderón’s misguided drug war, and they need to go easy on the immigration issue. It is also important for Washington to encourage any market-oriented reforms in its southern neighbor, since that would lead to Mexico’s more robust economic growth and thereby ameliorate bilateral problems in the arenas of immigration and drug trafficking.

If the power of the drug cartels inside Mexico is worrisome, their surging strength in the fragile countries of Central America should be doubly so. There are credible estimates that the two leading cartels, the Sinaloa organization and the ultra-violent Zetas, now control major portions of Honduras and nearly half of Guatemala. The Obama administration has become alarmed enough to quietly dispatch US Marines and other military personnel to assist security units in both countries. US forces have participated in several firefights, including one earlier this year that apparently resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians.

The covert US military presence is already becoming a controversial issue among populations who recall Washington’s support for right-wing governments and military forces in Central America during the Cold War, despite the human-rights abuses those regimes committed. In any case, Central America is back on Washington’s security radar to a degree that it has not been for two decades. Given the potential security threat that the drug cartels pose, that trend is almost certain to continue no matter who wins the US presidential election.

A final set of Latin American issues that has received scant discussion in the campaign is the political resilience of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his authoritarian populist allies in such countries as Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Chavez was elected to a new term in early October, so he is certain to continue being a political and diplomatic thorn in Washington’s side. However, his victory over challenger Henrique Capriles was much narrower than his previous triumphs. Despite having systematically eroded Venezuela’s democratic foundations during his years in office — bypassing the legislative branch, ruling by decree, closing or taking over media outlets critical of his conduct, and harassing political opponents and leaders of the business community — he won barely 55% of the vote (a 10-percentage-point victory margin compared to 27 percentage points in 2006), and his party lost seats in the national legislature.

Washington’s fears, so prominent just a few years ago, that Chavez and his populist allies in other countries were the harbinger of a hemispheric “Bolivarian revolution” have faded considerably. More moderate regimes in Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Mexico now seem to be the models that a majority of Latin Americans favor. However, the willingness of Chavez (and some of his emulators) to make common cause with Iran and other anti-US regimes is now an even greater concern among US leaders than before. Caracas’s relations with Tehran are going to be a significant, contentious matter in the coming years.

These and other issues are important enough that they deserve attention in the US presidential campaign. It is a measure of US political parochialism that foreign policy in general and these topics in particular have taken such a back seat to domestic issues. Although it is understandable that most American voters want to focus on the country’s persistent economic woes and how to overcome them, crucial foreign policy issues, including some that are rather close to home, are festering while voters look inward.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books on international issues, including The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America (forthcoming, October 2012).