President-elect Barack Obama has never set foot in Latin America. According to Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, Obama could not even recall the name of a single Latin American leader when he interviewed him for the first time over a year ago. Yet Obama was wildly favored in the region during the presidential race, and his election has been greeted with enthusiasm all over Latin America.
Obama's popularity represents a magnificent opportunity to engage the region in at least five areas where the United States can have a positive impact on hemispheric development and security. President-elect Obama should focus his Latin American policy on the following:
End the embargo and travel ban on Cuba: Obama promised during the campaign to allow unlimited travel and remittances from Cuban Americans to the island. Though stopping short of criticizing the embargo, his limited proposal did not please Fidel Castro, who called the idea of more U.S. visitors "propaganda for consumerism and the unsustainable way of life behind it." Despite officially criticizing the embargo as a source of Cuba's ills, Castro seems to be well aware of the danger for the Cuban regime of increasing interaction between foreigners and nationals.
Obama should be more innovative in his policy approach to Cuba. He should propose ending the travel ban to Cuba altogether, and lifting the trade embargo. This would do more for accelerating meaningful reforms in the island than continuing with a policy that has failed to deliver results for almost 50 years.
Insist on immigration reform: President Obama should take advantage of the expanded Democratic majorities in Congress to push for a meaningful reform that allows undocumented aliens to legalize their status in the U.S. and creates a program that grants enough visas for temporary guest workers. Obama favored a similar program two years ago, and he should lead on the issue once in the White House. This would generate an outpouring of good will from Latin Americans.
Reassess the war on drugs: Drug violence is tearing Mexico apart. This year alone, more than 4000 people have been killed in murders related to the wars between drug-trafficking gangs and the Mexican police and army. Law-enforcement authorities have also been infiltrated and corrupted by the drug lords. Mexico, and increasingly Central America as well, risk following the same path of drug violence that Colombia has suffered for many years.
An Obama administration should pay close attention to what other Latin American leaders are suggesting as an alternative to Washington's prohibitionist strategy. A few weeks ago Manuel Zelaya, president of Honduras, openly called for the legalization of drugs as a way to tackle drug-trafficking violence. He is not alone. In Argentina, the current government of Cristina Fernández is promoting the decriminalization of drug consumption. In Mexico, the PRD, the biggest opposition party, has also called for drug legalization. Even Mexico's conservative President Felipe Calderón has recently proposed decriminalizing small amounts of some drugs, including cocaine and marijuana. President Obama should discuss alternatives that aim to reduce the pervasiveness of drug-related violence and corruption in these countries with Latin American leaders.
Avoid confronting Hugo Chávez: The Venezuelan president and other populist leaders in the region will have a hard time portraying the United States as the "evil empire" now that is led by a charismatic and popular president. However, Chávez and his Bolivarian gang will certainly look for trouble with the new administration, because their anti-Americanism is a key feature of their populist posturing. There will probably be some pressure for the new president to look "tough" in his handling of unfriendly regimes, but President Obama should keep in mind that this confrontation is exactly what the populists want.
Do no harm on trade: Let's be real. The commercial agreements with Colombia and Panama don't have much chance of being approved in the next Congress. Nor will there be any movement in the direction of freer trade with Latin America in an Obama administration. However, the new president should not attempt to open existing trade agreements for renegotiation. This would create a terrible precedent and make the reliability of the United States as a serious commercial partner questionable.
President-elect Obama is very well positioned to tackle these issues given his enormous popularity in Latin America. He should make the most of this opportunity.