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Great Expectations For LAC-US Relations
by Odeen Ishmael

Guyana Journal, December 2008

CARACAS, 27 November 2008:- With the election of Barack Obama as the new US President, there are great expectations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) that the new American administration will show a revitalized interest in the region. Judging from Obama’s public statements during the election campaign, LAC countries are optimistic that his administration will end what they view as neglect of the region by the United States (US) particularly in the past four years.

Obviously, Obama will encounter difficult policy challenges especially in South America where large sections of the population have embraced the political left. US influence has seemingly diminished on this continent where democratic changes, propelled by the active participation of workers, peasants, women and indigenous communities, have brought into power leaders who champion social justice and reform.

Currently, the US government has lukewarm relations with “leftist” countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, but there is much anticipation that the new Obama administration will apply an approach of constructive engagement with those governments.

All of this is expected to form part of a policy strategy with a renewed bilateral and international emphasis in LAC. This strategy could also involve the appointment of a special envoy to the region, as well as early meetings with regional leaders. A positive approach will undoubtedly result in a clearer appreciation of the region’s political, economic and social problems.

The problem of the greatest common concern – to the US and LAC – is clearly that of drug trafficking, and there have been numerous complaints that the United States has not been doing enough to assist its poorer partners in containing, if not eliminating, this scourge.

Since the period of the Clinton presidency, the Caribbean sub-region earned the depiction as the “third border” of the US. But governments of this sub-region feel that the US has not made enough efforts to help strengthen the policing efforts there, especially when they have to budget higher proportions of their resources in the effort to block drug shipments through this “border” to the markets in the north.

But, perhaps, a change may be coming. The President-elect has already declared that he will commit the US government to increasing security measures in LAC. Noting that the region has “one of the highest murder rates in the world”, he stated recently that the Attorney General and Homeland Security Secretary will meet their Caribbean and Latin American counterparts in the first year of his presidency “to produce a regional strategy to combat drug trafficking, domestic and transnational gang activity, and organised crime.”

Economic problems are also of pressing concern. The LAC countries surely applaud Obama’s promise to double US foreign aid to the region to US$50 billion annually – even though this pledge was made before the current escalation of the economic crisis in the United States.

And, no doubt, Guyana, Bolivia, St. Lucia, Paraguay, Honduras and Haiti, among other poor indebted countries, are happy to know that he supports a complete cancellation of their foreign debts.

Then, there is the perennial immigration issue to which countries such as Mexico hope the US government will see as a priority. Many others, especially those of the Caribbean and Central America, also look forward to a re-examination of the US policy of “criminal” deportation in which their views will be given sympathetic consideration. The Guyana government, for instance, has always pointed to the danger this type of deportation poses on internal security and the social fabric of the Caribbean.

Leaders of this region have also expressed profound optimism that Obama will induce a positive advance in US-LAC relations, including a change in attitude towards Cuba.

Currently, US diplomatic relations with both Bolivia and Venezuela are at a low ebb, especially since the American ambassadors to both countries were expelled amid allegations that they were plotting with internal opposition groups against these leftist governments.

Nevertheless, the presidents of both countries have expressed optimism that Obama’s presidency could ease the diplomatic tension. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, in separate statements welcoming his victory, expressed expectation that Obama will end the Cuba blockade and work towards improving relations between the United States and their countries.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also urged Obama to end the blockade on Cuba and to forge more active relations with Latin America.

But despite such hope, the Brazilian government remains suspicious of Obama's views on free trade. The President-elect supports taxing Brazil's sugar cane-derived ethanol, which is more competitive than the US corn-based biofuel, and is critical of free trade deals with other Latin American countries such as Colombia.

There is little hope that the FTAA negotiations will be resumed, since in any case, a few South American countries are no longer interested in that process. But LAC governments feel that the Obama administration can take new initiatives to reopen the WTO negotiations on the question of agricultural subsidies – an important issue in which the US and LAC hold opposite positions.

The Obama administration will also have to face the fact that, as the region has grown more economically independent and self-confident in recent years, more and more of the governments are expanding their economic and political relations with China, Russia, the European Union and even Iran. These developing ties have added a new dimension to the geo-politics of the region where, as many political observers feel, the “eastern” influence has expanded as a result of the declining attention by the US in the past few years.

Governments of the region now expect the new American administration will rebuild diplomatic links throughout the hemisphere and advance policies that promote democracy, opportunity, and security, while treating all its southern partners with dignity and respect. Indeed, the region’s citizens are impressed by Obama’s principles relating to social justice and equal opportunity, and his message of hope and change has surely inspired them.

Expectations, therefore, are very high that the new president will bring major positive changes in US relations with the region. These expectations may not be met immediately but, as the new administration settles down to its task, the region looks forward to the launching from Washington of fresh initiatives which can advance a more constructive and mutually beneficial relationship between the US and its hemispheric neighbors.

The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.

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