As John McCain and Barack Obama prepare to wage their foreign policy battles over the middle east, another much closer region remains a lacuna in the ongoing contest. Latin America has barely featured in the race, despite its historical and persisting centrality in US strategic thinking and despite the growing population of Latinos in the country. Obama will have to hope that his Latin American silence proves golden.
Latin America came up briefly during the primary season. In the November/December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Hillary Clinton laid out her foreign policy blueprint for a Clinton presidency, declaring rather blandly that her stance was one of "vigorous engagement" with Latin America. The strategy behind this statement was twofold: first, to call attention to Bush's failed promise to build stronger relations throughout the continent (and perhaps to critique the administration's Cold War approach to the so-called "rogue" Latin American socialist states) and also to cater to her active and substantial Hispanic voter base.
Not to be outdone, Obama, the soon-to-be Democratic nominee, followed suit, also calling for more "vigorous engagement" with the continent, distinguishing himself from Clinton only in terms of his views on Cuba. Clinton's Foreign Affairs article was published several months after she promised to uphold the administration's draconian approach towards travel restrictions to Cuba, which Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation aptly described as "a policy in which people have to choose between attending their mother's funeral, or their father's." (The current policy allows Cuban-Americans to return to the island once every three years, and only after clearing a veritable Olympic course of bureaucratic hurdles). Smelling blood, at a Cuban Independence Day celebration in Miami in late May, Obama unveiled his own approach towards Cuba, emphasizing a greater leniency towards travel and a willingness to relax the 46-year trade embargo (a policy only a year younger than Obama himself).
Last year, Time magazine made her the "Latin Hillary." It was a comparison which President Cristina Kirchner seemed to fancy, just as Germany was the country she wished Argentina to become. A few months later, bruised in the opinions polls and beaten in the convulsive struggle over farm taxes, she faced the press - for the first time in her presidency - and let it be known that Obama was her new idol. "I've never been as interested in a presidential election in the United States," she said.
The Guardian has republished a piece written by Fidel Castro, barracking Obama for the candidate's speech last week on Latin America. In Miami, Obama played to the gallery, trotting out the customary condemnations of Cuban autocracy. But he did seek to distance himself incrementally from the Bush and the likely McCain approach to Latin America. Obama expressed willingness to meet with controversial, hostile leaders in the region, including Fidel's brother Raul Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. He also urged caution in pushing an aggressive free-trade agenda in the hemisphere.
"It's time to understand that the goal of our trade policy must be trade that works for all people in all countries," he said. "Like Central America's bishops, I opposed CAFTA because the needs of workers were not adequately addressed. I supported the Peru Free Trade Agreement because there were binding labor and environmental provisions. That's the kind of trade we need – trade that lifts up workers, not just a corporate bottom line."
Clearly unconvinced, Castro upbraids Obama for Washington's abiding "genocidal" approach to Cuba. Obama's opponents continue to link the candidate to Hamas leaders and other alleged "enemies of America" who have expressed their approval of him. Luckily for Obama, Fidel won't be causing him the same problems.