MEXICO CITY – Sen. John McCain’s trip to Colombia and Mexico this week made one thing clear: The shape of the United States’ relationship with Latin America will hinge on the outcome of the 2008 election.
McCain, R-Ariz., and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, have outlined sharply contrasting visions of how they would conduct relations in the hemisphere.
McCain is committed to putting a new emphasis on the region, but would pursue many of the policies followed by President Bush in Latin America, with a heavy emphasis on counter-narcotics efforts, free trade and a push to curb illegal immigration.
Obama has outlined a broad approach that relies more on diplomatic efforts and expression of soft power, through more foreign assistance, an infusion of Peace Corp volunteers and a willingness to meet with hard-line leftist leaders.
Dan Lund, a longtime Mexico City-based pollster, said “there is a big difference” between the two presidential contenders.
“It’s easy with McCain – he’s clearly going to pursue, without exceptions, the Bush administration line, including the policy toward Cuba,” Lund said in an interview. “The Democrats are kind of a mystery. They’ll want to loosen things, and they won’t want to fight with everybody like Bush did.”
The two men’s backgrounds have helped shape their divergent perspectives. McCain has visited Latin America dozens of times and took part in the bitter U.S. policy fights over the region in the 1980s, while Obama has yet to visit a single country there. But both senators are arguing the U.S needs to pursue closer ties with Central and South America in order to address some of America’s most pressing problems, including illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism.
For decades, U.S. leaders have used Latin America as a key battleground in the war against communism, supporting some regimes while seeking to undermine others based on their ideological tilt. It was only in the 1990s that American politicians began to adopt a less explicitly interventionist approach and shifted to a more collaborative relationship, based more on economic than political interests.
President Clinton had two significant accomplishments involving Latin America during his tenure, forcing the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress and helping to establish the Summit of the Americas. While President Bush pledged to emphasize relations with the region, the bulk of his foreign policy emphasis has focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain has made a point of stressing his intimate knowledge of the region during his three-day tour, lavishing praise on both Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Mexican President Felipe Calderon for their efforts to combat drug trafficking and terrorism. In a press conference Thursday, McCain lauded Uribe for launching a successful raid this week to free 15 hostages and welcomed a recent anti-narcotics agreement between the U.S. and Mexico as perhaps “the most important agreement” the two nations have signed.
McCain’s aides said his historical connection to the region – which began with his birth in the Panama Canal Zone – contrasts sharply with that of Obama.
“He’s been to the Amazon rain forest, he’s been to the Galapagos islands. So for him, the relationship with our southern neighbors is not just a series of briefings by an outside policy adviser because he needed to have a policy position on Latin America,” said McCain senior foreign policy aide Randy Schuenemann.
Schuenemann did point out two areas where McCain would differ from Bush, saying he would work to engage “democratic left-wing governments” in Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina, and “in a McCain administration the most senior foreign policy national security officials, starting with the president, going on to the secretaries of state and defense and down, would have Latin America at the centerpiece of their portfolios, rather than an afterthought.”
Obama aides counter their candidate has developed an overarching Latin America policy that would address the region’s economic and social inequities, which are often at the root of the drug and immigration problems affecting the United States. Dan Restrepo, Obama’s foreign policy aide for the region, wrote in an e-mail that it’s “important to remember that visits without a coherent policy approach is what we have seen from George Bush during the past 8 years and what we are seeing now with John McCain.”
In a speech Obama delivered in Miami on May 23, the Democrat pledged to revamp America’s foreign policy to push for grass-roots reform in Latin America.
“After decades pressing for top-down reform, we need an agenda that advances democracy, security, and opportunity from the bottom up,” Obama said. “That means measuring success not just through agreements among governments, but also through the hopes of the child in the favelas of Rio, the security for the policeman in Mexico City, and the shrinking of the distance between Miami and Havana.”