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Barack Obama and Latin America

Across Hispanic America, people are celebrating the election of Barack Obama. Even though this region will probably not be one of Obama’s top-tier priorities—given the U.S. economic crisis and the challenges he will face in the Middle East and Asia—there are different ways he could demonstrate his commitment to the region.

The discussion over Latin America has become quite polarizing, with Republicans and Democrats bickering about free trade, foreign aid, the war on drugs, how to handle Venezuela, whether to ease sanctions against Cuba, and more. Looking back to History, President Reagan confronted a polarizing debate over Central America in the early 1980s, he established a bipartisan commission chaired by Henry Kissinger, whose recommendations ultimately gave birth to policies such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative and a scholarship program that enabled thousands of Latin Americans to pursue studies in the United States.
Today, the outlook in Latin America is mixed. Over the past half-decade, many of Latin America’s most powerful countries—including Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia—have enjoyed solid GDP growth and seen their middle classes expand. Meanwhile, smaller countries such as Panama and Peru have experienced rapid growth and become hot spots for foreign investment. Uruguay has been another impressive reformer, under the leadership of President Tabaré Vázquez. All of these countries have boosted their economic and political stability.
Unfortunately, two of the largest countries in South America—Venezuela and Argentina—have been moving in the opposite direction, while reaping the benefits of high commodity prices (at least until recently). In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez has trampled democracy and embraced authoritarianism, militarism, and socialism. In Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner has continued the populist and pro-Chávez policies of her husband, Néstor, who preceded her as president. Kirchner recently proposed legislation to nationalize Argentina’s private pension system, which was passed by the Argentine House of Representatives [on November 7, 2008]. (It still must win approval in the Senate.) The pension plan has spurred massive street protests in Buenos Aires, with thousands of Argentines marching to show their opposition.
Elsewhere in Latin America, some poor countries—including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua—have squandered opportunities and signed up with the Chávez bloc. Honduras effectively became a member of this group in August when its president, Manuel Zelaya, joined the Chávez-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. However, this arrangement may prove ephemeral, for Zelaya’s move has triggered fierce domestic opposition, particularly in the Honduran business community.
In Paraguay, President Fernando Lugo is a former Roman Catholic bishop who has espoused radical liberation theology in the past, but the expectation is that his government will chart a more pragmatic course. As for Communist Cuba, its future under the Raúl Castro regime is highly uncertain, and the United States should be working to encourage a democratic transition.
All Latin American countries will be affected by the financial crisis and the global economic downturn, though to varying degrees. If Obama announced a new U.S. commission on Latin America, it would send a powerful message to political and business leaders throughout the region that the United States will not neglect its 600 million people.

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