University of Southern California

Election 2012

In Brief

How Does the U.S. Election Affect Latin America?

January 11, 2008

Latin America and the Presidential Election Campaign: The Less Said, The Better

By Abraham F. Lowenthal
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United States policies toward Latin America don’t improve when they become visible in presidential electoral campaigns. John F. Kennedy’s attack on Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower for “losing Cuba” made his Bay of Pigs invasion all but inevitable. Michael Dukakis’ taunting of George H.W. Bush for being wimpish about Manuel Noriega no doubt contributed to Bush’s Panama invasion. Bill Clinton’s attack on President George W. Bush for alleged insensitivity to the human rights of Haitian refugees led to a quixotic U.S. intervention to “restore democracy to Haiti.” And U.S. policy toward Cuba, through many administrations, has been distorted by efforts to win the support of Cuban American voters.

The most welcome changes in U.S. policy toward Latin America that could emerge after the 2008 presidential election have to do with broad issues that aren’t strictly “Latin American” policy: immigration reform, trade policy, the narcotics question, and America’s overall international stance. In at least three of the four cases, future policies will benefit if the issues don’t become central to partisan debate.

The biggest improvement in U.S. immigration policy that could occur after the next election would be comprehensive reform. The United States today badly needs a policy that is based on recognizing that labor markets and family dynamics are likely to produce substantial flows of unauthorized migrants. The United States should seek to regulate and manage these flows, not to prevent them, and to enhance their benefits while mitigating and more fairly distributing their various costs. Any viable plan must take into account the medium- and long-term need to ensure that recent and future immigrants become integrated, educated, healthy and law abiding residents, licensed to drive, insured as motorists, with good access to credit and education, and able to contribute to improving U.S. productivity. A new policy will require improved border management; bilateral cooperation on economic, labor, health, education, social, environment and infrastructure issues; a temporary workers’ program; and concerted efforts, including paths to earned citizenship, to integrate immigrants who want to become part of the U.S. community. The best we can hope for in the presidential campaign is that demagogic attacks on “illegal immigration” won’t make such reform impossible.

On trade, it is also possible, but far from assured, that the next president and Congress can reconstruct a viable national policy, drawing on the agreements recently reached between the Bush administration and the Congressional Democratic leadership and then with the government of Peru. It is no longer workable to stress the benefits of expanded trade for those who prosper while ignoring its costs for others. More needs to be done to compensate, protect, retrain, and provide technical assistance and access to credit to those who are displaced by expanded trade, both in this country and in the economies of our trading partners, including those in Latin America. Here, too, the best we can hope for is that progress toward a new trade policy isn’t set back by partisan political appeals.

There is reason to expect that the next U.S. administration and Congress may be ready to rethink America’s approaches to the problem of narcotics. More and more people, inside the U.S. government and out, recognize that a coercive “war on drugs” will never solve this problem. The narcotics trade has as much to do with deep failures in the United States and other advanced industrial countries as with weak governance, crime, corruption and poverty in Latin American and other producing nations. The chances for the next administration to give higher priority to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and youth employment programs at home and alternative development programs abroad would likely be enhanced if the drug issue doesn’t become a focal point of electoral debate.

Finally, U.S.-Latin American relations would be best served if the next American president restores an overall U.S. world role that is actively engaged rather than isolationist, respectful of international law and opinion, cooperative rather than domineering, committed to multilateralism and international institutions, sensitive to the aspirations of many countries (including China, India, and Iran as well as South American nations) for broader international recognition, and true to the fundamental values shared by citizens throughout the Americas. If the presidential campaign contributes anything to improved U.S.-Latin American relations, it will be by driving American foreign policy in this direction.

Abraham F. Lowenthal is professor of international relations at the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and also president emeritus and senior fellow of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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