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).
But aside from these scuffles over Cuba policy and a senate speech (which steered clear of addressing the "bad" socialist countries of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and perhaps Argentina) preceding Bush's six-day trip down the continent Obama has generally remained silent on the details of his thinking about Latin America, leaving everyone to wonder whether or exactly how his policies will differ from the current administration.
In a recent article for openDemocracy, Ivan Briscoe observes that Obama appears to have captured the hearts (if not the minds) of Latin America's "bad" socialists, winning over many of the leaders the Bush administration has worked so hard to stigmatise.
...The beatific outreach of a peace-making mulato has proved very seductive. Fidel has praised the candidate from his bed, while Chávez cannot quite muster the splendid fury of his anti-imperialism when ticking off "the little gentleman". How Cristina (Kirchner) would like to do as Obama does, and as her husband did, and dissolve the resentments of black and white in a hard stare at the operations of global banks and corporations. Or travel from one country to the next, as Chávez did last year, and stir up mass devotion with the spine tingle of substantial political change.
Briscoe has indeed pinpointed a politically-significant trend. For many, Obama represents a radical departure from the conservative policies that the US has as-of-late staked its politics on; and for anti-World Bank and anti-US socialists, that's a big deal. Although he has been the target of criticism for his vacillating position on Venezuela, Caracas newspapers have taken to weighing Obama's pro-labor positions and populist rhetoric against the image of John "seven-house" McCain. Even in countries such as Brazil, where racial hierarchies remain some of the most entrenched in the world, a black American leader may be less disagreeable than the more-of-the-same brand of politics that McCain seems to represent.
What's more, Obama's vice presidential choice seems to be working in his favor. In a fawning piece about Joe Biden, Argentina's La Nación described a brief encounter between Biden and the country's then first lady, Cristina Kirchner, in which Biden "conveyed a great deal of knowledge" about Argentina's recent economic woes, and praised her husband for setting the country on the right track. Similarly, Bolivia's conservative El Diario approvingly featured Biden's remarks about Bush destroying the American dream.
On a domestic level, Obama's popularity throughout the Americas is also largely reflected in the politics of US Latino voters. As the fastest growing minority in the US - and as a result of massive voter registration campaigns - Latino voters could be one of the major determining factors in the upcoming election. While most of the media frenzy as of late has concentrated on the gender divide (especially in light Sarah Palin's recent addition to the GOP ticket), in regions like the Southwest, Latino turnout could make the difference between a swing state going blue or red. While Latino voters currently only make up 9% of the registered electorate, polls taken over the last two months show them overwhelmingly in favour of Obama, with two-thirds choosing him over John McCain.
Aside from the issue of immigration, which has shifted many voters who previously supported Bush away from the Republicans, Obama's pledged economic reforms and avowed anti-war stance have made him hugely popular among the Latino community, and if voter turnout reaches the levels hoped for, the White House may beckon.
If one of Obama's greatest selling points is his capacity to restore the integrity of American diplomacy, then there is no better place to begin than in his home hemisphere. While Latin America has been almost ignored over the past eight years, the region's politics are inextricably linked with those of the United States. And with Latino population in the US growing each year, US-Latin American relations are only going to become more critical in coming years. Even though Obama has largely kept quiet on the topic of Latin America, he has hinted at a readiness to negotiate with some of its more antagonistic countries, an indication that he won't be following in the footsteps of the current administration. At least he's moving, albeit silently, in the right direction.