Biden and Latin America, a Chance to Restore U.S. Standing?

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 29, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- For months, Barack Obama's disconnect with Latin America has left many officials and observers in the region wondering what a Democratic administration would mean for future relations. Now the search for an answer continues with Obama's choice of running mate.

Sen. Joe Biden was picked not just for his appeal to working-class white voters, but also for his reputation as a foreign policy expert. But those hoping that Biden's presence on the ticket would beef up the inexperienced Obama in Latin America might be disappointed.

During his 35 years in the U.S. Senate, the last 10 in leadership positions on the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has participated in just four congressional trips south of the border, two to Colombia and two to Mexico. Biden's experience and interests are elsewhere -- Europe and the Middle East, particularly Iraq. He has almost a "blank slate" on Latin America, as Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, put it.

That is not to say that Biden doesn't have priorities that could affect U.S. policy toward Latin America. In particular, Biden, who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, has very much cooled on the trade issue, the single most important policy initiative of the U.S. government toward the entire region in the last decade. Over the last five years he has opposed free trade deals with Peru, Central America and Chile.

In 2007, Biden explained his opposition to the Peruvian trade deal by arguing that "the Bush administration has not proven that it will effectively enforce labor and environmental provisions, however good they may be."

For many observers, such rhetoric was typical of a Democrat who has turned more protectionist in order to keep organized labor's support. Furthermore, they say, Latin America should not expect a Democratic administration to dedicate much energy on initiatives meant to open the U.S. market to goods from the region.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, a free trade Democrat, suggested in an interview from Denver this week that Democrats would pursue trade -- but differently. "What you would see in an Obama administration would not be an abandonment of trade expansion but rather an expansion of issues" to be negotiated, including labor rights, environmental protections and human rights.

While Biden's approach to trade doesn't distinguish him among Democrats, his tone toward Latin America and Mexico in particular has sometimes come across as condescending -- not exactly what you would expect from a man described by his office as committed to advancing relations with Latin American through "partnerships and cooperation."

In late 2006, as he began fundraising for his unsuccessful bid for the presidency, Biden called Mexico an "erstwhile democracy" with a "corrupt system" that can be blamed for inequality, illegal immigration and drug trafficking into this country. "Don't tell me in Mexico you expect to get the same kind of treatment that we give other democracies and then you don't act in a democratic way. Not on my watch," Biden said.

For Latin America, Biden joining Obama on the ticket leaves much to be desired. Had Obama's choice been New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Mexican-American with a nuanced understanding of the region, a much different message would have been sent. It would be similar to the message George W. Bush tried to send in 2000: that Latin America was going to be a priority and not the traditional afterthought.

But after almost eight years of the Bush administration and nearly seven years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is certainly the case that Latin America is in a new place, more distant and more independent from Washington. More than leadership, Latin America is looking for a sympathetic ear as it struggles to address new challenges with energy, food, the environment and, perhaps more importantly, persistent and profound inequality, second to none in the world.

Interestingly, inequality is the one Latin American issue that Biden has seemed to be passionate about. He "has fought to address the root cause of the dissatisfaction and subsequent instability that has plagued the region, particularly in recent years: tremendous social inequality," according to a statement his office sent me on Monday. While this might be interpreted solely as political pandering, it is hard to imagine Dick Cheney's office ever issuing similar remarks.

Indeed, social inequality has not only been a source of conflict within the hemisphere but also of political divisiveness. If the Democrats win in November, and tackling Latin America's inequality gap becomes the basis for a new, well-financed approach to the region, many Latin Americans could start looking to Washington in a new way.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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