By Larry Birns and Robert Valencia
After President Barack Obama delivered the last State of the Union address for his current term, the Republican aspirants for the presidency immediately responded that his rhetoric sounded more like a “state of the presidential campaign.” Though there is some waggish appeal to this unlikely claim, in light of the steadily degrading and pumped-up and theatrical nature to the Republican candidates’ manner in characterizing the party’s optimism in recent weeks, not to mention that challenger Mitt Romney’s issuing his own “pre-buttal” pessimistic assessment prior to the Obama address, which criticized the President on any number of issues. Even amid the many instances of the two parties’ ideologically soaked clashes, one common feature was starkly, but depressingly clear: they hardly have evinced even a trace of dust in sounding the need of a comprehensive approach when it comes to U.S.-Latin American relations.
Aside from some slightly amusing last-minute anti-Castro bashing in an attempt to nail down Florida’s electoral vote, the Republican presidential hopefuls have framed their stance on contemporary U.S.-Latin American relations within the context of unadulterated schlock. They consistently serve up obsolete and sterile Cold War-era doctrines and diplomatic clichés with expired shelf lives. These have not only included weak (albeit fanciful) positions aimed at unhinging Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, but also upholding claims with absolutely no evidence that somehow Hamas and Hezbollah pose a grave threat by way of the Mexico border as a threatening route for terrorism.
In the next to last debate in Florida, Latin America occupied a tiny corner of the discussion, though even here this could just have been done as a token concession to appease the large pool of Hispanic voters residing the swing state that could conceivably heavily influence the outcome of November’s presidential race. For example, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) called for putting an end to the Cuban and Venezuelan dictatorships as being essential because these nations “would collaborate with Al Qaeda,” whereas Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, that these presumed world-famous doctors, discussed the fate of an ailing Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. As for Ron Paul, he forcefully criticized the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba for the way it has been used as a mischievous tool against the Castro brothers by a White House eager to accuse Cuban complicity as being the author of many of the hemisphere’s problems, even though the evidence is in short supply on such a charge. It is a formulation largely steeped in science fiction rather than in a scholarly monograph. None of these charges should be considered as anything more than examples of tossing wet offal at the barn door, hoping that some of it would stick. The only relief to their shabby performances are Ron Paul’s classy, if only occasionally wise words calling for the same kind of modus vivendi via a constructive diplomacy only if such a wise road is pursued by the State Department like that which it regularly attempts to achieve with Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, and even Syria.
Meanwhile, President Obama focused his State of the Union address on economic matters, such as narrowing the wealth gap, tackling “irresponsible policies” that spurred an economic downturn, and tax reforms. One of few even remotely connected references to Latin America were exaggerations of the recently implemented free trade agreements that the U.S. entered with Panama and Colombia last year, citing that these treaties, alongside that with South Korea’s, will allow local businesses to contribute to the goal of “doubling U.S. exports over five years.”
Obama also proposed to set up a trade enforcement unit that would curb the crossing of “unsafe goods” across the U.S. border and investigate unfair trade practices. Like the recent Republican debate, President Obama’s speech also proved that immigration remains a hugely relevant issue for Latin Americans living in and outside the U.S. alike. These themes continue to resonate as a dominant feature of discussions on U.S.-Latin American relations. He underscored that the decline of illegal crossings over the U.S.-Mexico border was in part due to the fact that his administration “put more boots on the border than ever before,” and called Congress to act on a comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, the president is no braver on this issue than he is on the broader issue of U.S.-Latin American relations which only worsens as time passes.
Ironically, the stars of both the Republican debate in Florida and the State of the Union address in Washington chose not to use the opportunity to highlight other important areas in which Latin America is likely to play a more important role in the near future. These could include important issues such as homeland security and energy alternatives. For example, President Obama emphasized his push for clean energy projects, the country’s decreasing reliance on foreign oil under his administration, the development of natural gas, and federal investments that most likely would also lead to an increase in renewable energy use. Yet he did not mention a word about the importance of Brazil, for example, whose production of sugarcane ethanol. According to Brazil’s trade group, the Union of the Sugarcane Industry (UNICA), the South American giant expects an increase of 12 billion liters of Brazilian ethanol shipments to the United States by 2020. Not huge figures, but at least interesting.
Likewise, during the debate, the GOP candidates, whose party historically supports free trade and voted in favor of the 2011 FTAs, did not mention the relevance of the agreements with Colombia and Panama, despite the fact that they are believed to have the potential to create more than 20,000 new jobs and generate more than USD 1.5 billion in international trade opportunities. These figures are not huge, but interesting nonetheless.
Moreover the War on Drugs was not even mentioned during the president’s address and was hardly touched upon in the Republican debate. President Obama seemed to be more concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and cyber-threats allegedly being readied by it, despite the longstanding and menacing issue of gang violence and the illicit drug trade affecting U.S. citizens living along the border area. Save for former Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry, who last year brazenly proposed the deployment of U.S. troops into Mexico, none of the Republican candidates bother to address valid security issues related to drug trafficking and, like President Obama, flamboyantly focused their concerns on what could turn out to be largely chimerical issues as Iran and Al-Qaeda
Should President Obama’s State of the Union and the Republican debate in Florida be an omen of what U.S.-Latin America relations could come to look like over the next four years? Regardless of who will become the next president of the U.S., that person will not be allowed by the order of events, to overlook the rising importance of Latin America, much less when a number of the region’s countries are in a position to help shore up the world economy, as is the case with the International Monetary Fund seeking Brazil’s financial help with the amelioration of the European crisis. In addition, the U.S. and other currently troubled economies can learn from countries like Argentina and Uruguay’s fiscal discipline after having suffered two of the biggest defaults in history. The U.S. also would be wise to collaborate with Colombia and Mexico in continuing to develop more effective strategies for eradicating the illicit drug trade and increasing security. Despite the significant strides that Latin America has made in the last couple of years, the improvement still does not seem sufficient enough to register on the radar of U.S. policymakers of any political stripe. Until that happens, it is unlikely that Washington will come to consider its southern neighbors as an intrinsic component of its foreign policy rhetoric, and that is ultimately a sad and troublesome truth.
This analysis was prepared by Director Larry Birns, and Research Fellow Robert Valencia, for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.