Latin America Policy at a Crossroads
McCain Trip to Region Makes Clear That Election Outcome Will Affect Relationship

By Juliet Eilperin and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 4, 2008

MEXICO CITY, July 3 -- 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.

The Republican presidential candidate and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, 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 counternarcotics efforts, free trade and a push to curb illegal immigration. Obama has sketched a broad approach that relies more on diplomatic efforts and expression of soft power, through more foreign assistance, an infusion of Peace Corps volunteers and a willingness to meet with hard-line leftist leaders.

Dan Lund, a longtime Mexico City-based pollster, said that "there is a big difference" between the two candidates.

"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 that the United States needs to pursue closer ties with Central and South America to address some of America's most pressing problems, including illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism.

For decades, U.S. leaders 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, shifting to a more collaborative relationship based more on economic than political interests.

President Clinton's two significant accomplishments involving Latin America during his tenure were pushing 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 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 Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Mexican President Felipe Calderón for their efforts to combat drug trafficking and terrorism. In a news conference Thursday at the command center for the Mexican federal judicial police, McCain lauded Uribe for launching a successful raid this week to free 15 hostages held by Marxist rebels, and welcomed a recent anti-narcotics agreement between the United States and Mexico as perhaps "the most important agreement" the two nations have signed.

"I am encouraged by our better relations, and I will do everything I can to continue our path of cooperation and better relations with all nations in our hemisphere," he said.

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 Scheunemann. "It's very hard to argue you're going to pay more attention to a region you've never bothered to visit."

Scheunemann did point out two areas where McCain would differ from Bush, saying that he would work to engage "democratic left-wing governments" in Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina, and that "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 that 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 is "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. When Barack does visit the region it will be with a comprehensive vision of what he hopes to achieve and how he will advance US interests."

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."

Some Democratic lawmakers have privately expressed concerns that McCain's trip may give him an upper hand on Latin American issues, an advantage that seemed to get a boost from McCain's presence in Colombia on the same day that the 15 hostages were rescued from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Plans are being made to try to persuade Obama to visit the northern city of Monterrey, one of Mexico's industrial capitals.

Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is scheduled to appear July 22 in Mexico City at a $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner organized by Democrats Abroad.

McCain arrived in Mexico City two days after Bush signed a $400 million aid package to help Mexico battle drug cartels, the largest U.S. anti-drug initiative abroad since 2000, when the U.S. Congress passed a multibillion-dollar project to eradicate drugs and suppress the Marxist rebels in Colombia. The aid to Mexico, known as the Merida Initiative, is viewed here as a hopeful sign of more cooperation.

Mexican Congressman Nicolás Morales Ramos said the aid package "has filled Mexicans with hope and enthusiasm" about relations between the two countries. "This is an extremely important step forward. We're starting to see the United States take Mexico more seriously," Morales said in an interview.

But Morales, a member of the Chamber of Deputies' border and migration committee, said Mexicans have essentially given up trying to persuade the Bush administration to pass comprehensive immigration reform. A renewed push will surely be made, he said, once a new administration is in place.

"Obama, especially, is coming with new ideas. It seems like he's young and full of plans and that he's talked about helping migrants more than McCain," Morales said.

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