Monday, November 5, 2012

VOXXI: Presidential foreign policy debate, Latin America and 4 more years

Presidential foreign policy debate, Latin America and 4 more years
W. Alejandro Sanchez
November 4, 2012
Originally published

The last U.S. presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, centered on foreign policy. Despite the potential for an intriguing engagement, the topics discussed were extremely limited in scope. To the disappointment of many, and to the surprise of few, the discussion centered on only a handful of issues, such as terrorism, the Middle East peace process, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Surprisingly, even the stability, or lack thereof, of the Sub Saharan nation of Mali was often mentioned (a full transcript and audio version of the foreign policy debate can be found here). However, Latin America and the Caribbean were mentioned on only a few occasions merely in passing remarks on maintaining trade agreements.
At the beginning of the discussion, the moderator, Bob Schieffer, mentioned that 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, the issue was not raised again in spite of its significance regarding Washington-Latin American and Washington-Moscow relations, either past or present. In one stance, Romney mentioned the business and trade ventures that the U.S. could undertake with Latin America, but he failed to expand on that issue. President Obama did not mention Latin America at all.
Pundits often highlight how the American public ranks foreign policy as the lesser of their interests, when compared to domestic issues such as the economy. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting to see what both candidates have to say about U.S. relations with Latin America aside from the topics of trade opportunities and immigration.

Unasked questions in foreign policy

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President Barack Obama, right, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney discuss a point during the last presidential debate centered on foreign policy at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. Neither candidates spoke about Latin America during the debate. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
If a segment of the foreign policy presidential debate had focused on Latin America and Caribbean issues, these are some questions that Latin American experts would probably have liked to seen answered:
  1. To President Obama: Your first presidential campaign promised to close the detention center in the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If re-elected, will you finally carry out your campaign promise and close the controversial prison?
  2. To Romney: You mentioned that you saw great businesses opportunities between the U.S. and Latin America. What is your position regarding ongoing negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes several Latin American countries like Peru, Mexico and Colombia? If elected president, will you support the TPP?
  3. To both: Are either of you willing to push for the reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and publicly declare that Brazil is ready to have a permanent seat in the UNSC as the Latin American representative? President Obama, you praised Brazil during your March 2011 trip to South America but stopped short of supporting Brasilia’s UNSC bid.
  4. To both: What is your opinion of the military operations that the Mexican government has carried out in the past years to fight the numerous Mexican drug cartels? Has this so-called “war on drugs” been successful? What is your opinion on the success, or lack thereof, of the Merida Initiative?
  5. To President Obama: what is the nature of Washington’s aid to the Mexican government regarding the cartels given the recent incident in which CIA agents were shot at in Mexico City?
  6.  To both: The Cuban government has taken various steps to liberalize its economy in recent years. Under your administration, will the embargo on the island continue or will some restrictions be lifted? Would either of you consider removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of countries that support terrorism?
  7. To both: Recently, Washington supported a resolution by the Organization of American States (OAS) that called for discussion between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, though some analysts in London saw this as an insult to the “special relationship.” What should be Washington’s position regarding this dispute between London and Buenos Aires?
  8. To both: What are Washington’s goals regarding hemispheric integration, particularly when it comes to agencies such as the Organization of American States (OAS)? For decades the OAS has been regarded as Washington’s watchdog in the hemisphere, and lately the countries of the region have created regional blocs that do not include the U.S. as member. Examples would be such organizations as UNASUR, ALBA and CELAC. How can Washington reinvigorate its relations with the rest of the continent?
  9. To both: what is your position on the possible legalization of marijuana as proposed by the government of Uruguay? Do you believe this will affect demand in the U.S.?
  10. To both: There have been recent media reports that SOUTHCHOM will begin using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the Caribbean to track down aircraft and vessels that could be carrying drugs. Do either of you believe this will bring positive results?
  11. To both: The Haitian government has recently been discussing the possibility of reconstituting its infamous army. If Port-au-Prince chooses to go along with this proposal and given the Haitian army’s history, would either of you place limits to the kind of security-related aid Washington would provide the Haitian government?
  12. To both: The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas, remains a controversial institution given its history. There is even an organization, the School of the Americas Watch, that is solely focused on trying to have it closed. Would either of you consider reforming WHINSEC or shutting it down?
  13. To both: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was recently reelected and he will know rule until 2018 (if not for longer). Under Chávez, Caracas has had a controversial and problematic relationship with Washington. What initiatives, if any, would you take to improve relations between the two countries? What are your opinions regarding the accusations about Caracas-Tehran nuclear ties and that the Venezuelan government is actively engaged in promoting drug trafficking?

The Latino vote and Latin American governments

3 Colombia Americas Sum Balt 1 Presidential foreign policy debate, Latin America and 4 more years
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, right, and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff at the CEO Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Saturday April 14, 2012. President Obama and Mitt Romney failed to talk about Latin America during their debate on foreign policy. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
For Latin American experts, it would have been refreshing if both candidates had discussed Latin America at greater length during the third presidential debate on foreign policy. The fact that the region was barely mentioned in the foreign policy debate highlights that neither candidate sees it as particularly important nor do they have a grand strategy for hemispheric affairs (this much has been clear during the Obama presidency). President Obama did recently give an interview to a Colombian radio station, in which he discussed U.S.-Latin American relations, including the ongoing dialogue between Bogota and the FARC guerilla movement. This is a positive signal that the White House has not entirely forgotten the rest of the hemisphere.
Nevertheless, Washington’s lack of interest in the region may not necessarily be a bad thing. In recent years Latin America has experienced significant economic growth as it increases its trade with non-hemispheric partners. Besides the usual suspects such as China, Russia, Japan and Europe, other non-traditional states are increasing their relations with the region. For example, South Korea recently held a week of events to celebrate 50 years of relations between Seoul and Latin America. In addition, this past October, Peru held the third summit of heads of state of South America and the Arab World.
2 Colombia Americas Sum Balt 2 Presidential foreign policy debate, Latin America and 4 more years
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon at Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Friday, April 13, 2012. President Obama and Mitt Romney failed to talk about Latin America during their debate on foreign policy. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Given these developments, it may be Washington that is losing by not maintaining and working to increase its trade relations with the region; the passing of the TPP would certainly be a sign that the White House continues to see hemispheric trade as important. In addition, hemispheric issues like drug trafficking in Mexico continue to directly affect U.S. society. Therefore, it would have been appropriate for such issues to be raised during the last U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy.
It is understandable that when it comes to the Latino vote, both candidates focus on issues that relate to American domestic affairs, like immigration and Cuba (which affects votes in Florida). A recent commentary in the El NuevoHeraldo by renowned columnist Andres Oppenheimer argued that Romney would prefer if Latinos do not vote on November 6 as they are more likely to vote for the President than for him. Furthermore, it is debatable to what extent Latino voters in the U.S. would decide to cast their vote on the passing of the TPP, the CIA’s role in Mexico, or drones in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the next U.S. president needs to be able to deal with a more diverse set of issues. One can only hope that the next four years bring positive developments in Washington-hemispheric affairs, and the White House addresses some of the aforementioned topics.

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