1. Archive


Published Oct. 30, 2008

President Bush has made more trips to Latin America than any other president before him - nine in total. But during his eight years in the White House, U.S. influence in the region has fallen sharply.

Both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, criticize Bush's foreign policy performance. So what would they do differently, and what challenges would they face in the region?

Sen. Obama has never visited Latin America, as Sen. McCain reminded the audience at the last debate. Nevertheless, Obama's candidacy has excited enormous interest there, especially in countries with large black populations such as Brazil.

McCain has traveled to the region extensively. He was deeply involved in U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s when the Reagan administration sent weapons and financial aid to help defeat left-wing revolutionaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Experts note that Latin America has never loomed very large on Washington's radar screen, at least until a crisis explodes. Given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the current economic crisis, "it seems unlikely that the United States will be able to give Latin America the attention that it needs in the coming few years," says Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy in Miami.

BRAZIL: President Bush's promotion of ethanol helped develop a surprisingly close personal relationship with Brazil's moderate leftist president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Brazil has emerged as arguably the most important strategic U.S. ally in the region.

McCain supports lifting a tariff on Brazilian ethanol. But this is unpopular in America's grain states. Obama would keep the tariff.

Obama is popular with dark-skinned Brazilians, who make up about half the population.

CUBA: A McCain administration would stick with the four-decades-old economic embargo. McCain says he would try to strengthen it through greater international support. Bush tried that but didn't get anywhere.

Obama says he would immediately lift recent restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island and sending money to their families there. He says he is ready to meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro, though it is not clear under what conditions.

COLOMBIA: McCain is a staunch supporter of Plan Colombia, the decade-old $5-billion program to help fight drugs and guerrillas. He also backs a free trade agreement with Colombia currently stalled in Congress.

Obama has supported Plan Colombia, but opposed the proposed free trade pact with Colombia because of abuses of trade unionists. Obama says he doesn't oppose free trade on principle. He supported free trade with Peru.

HAITI: Though he leans to the left, Haitian President Rene Preval is a good friend of the United States. He recognizes the importance of U.S. aid, especially in the wake of a disastrous hurricane season.

Obama may be more sympathetic to pressure from the black caucus in Congress to grant temporary status to undocumented Haitians in the United States. After Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which left more than 500 Haitians dead and destroyed the country's road network, the Bush administration temporarily suspended deportation of Haitians.

McCain is also sympathetic on immigrant issues, though he has not taken an active interest in Haiti policy.

MEXICO: A bloody drug war in Mexico has barely been mentioned in the campaign.

McCain made a campaign stop in Mexico in July, the first ever by a presidential candidate, and offered his support for President Felipe Calderon.

Falling oil production in Mexico has prompted urgent calls for reform of laws governing Mexico's state oil monopoly. Mexico is the second-largest supplier of oil to the United States.

Earlier this year Congress passed the Merida Initiative, a five-year, $1.4-billion plan to bolster security. The first $400-million in funds will begin to flow before Bush leaves office.

McCain and Obama are sympathetic to calls for comprehensive immigration reform that could favor undocumented Mexicans. McCain hardened his position during the campaign to a "secure-the-border-first" stand.

VENEZUELA: Both candidates have expressed concern over President Hugo Chavez's antidemocratic ways.

McCain adviser Otto Reich, whom Bush appointed as his top State Department official for Latin America, says the United States should suspend all Venezuelan oil imports, 10 percent of the U.S. total. That would send prices higher in the United States, experts say, and Chavez would likely have no problem selling his oil elsewhere.

Obama is more willing to sit down and work out their differences. "It is important for us not to overreact in relation to Chavez," he said in one recent interview. "What we must do is to make him understand that we do not want him to continue spreading anti-U.S. feelings" in the region and that "we are interested in a respectful dialogue."

Campaign advisers on Latin America

John McCain

Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Ana Navarro, the Miami-based co-chair of John McCain's National Hispanic Advisory Council.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart,R-Miami, Cuban-American member of Congress.

Mario Diaz-Balart,R-Miami, Cuban-American member of Congress.

Barack Obama

Frank Sanchez, former Clinton administration official in the National Security Council and U.S. assistant secretary of transportation.

Bob Gelbard, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, 1993-97.

Pete Romero, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Dan Restrepo, senior fellow and director of the Americas Project at American Progress. U.S.-born son of Colombian and Spanish parents.