I was discussing U.S. politics recently with an Argentine friend, who posed a question that was difficult to answer: "Why should Latin Americans care about the U.S. presidential election? Is the outcome going to change things so much for us?"
Public opinion polls in Latin America show Sen. John F. Kerry far more popular than President Bush. But the prospects for change are doubtful in a region where neither Republicans nor Democrats are expected to provide debt relief, help fight government corruption or support social programs that might improve the plight of millions living below subsistence poverty. "It appears that Americans are exaggerating by saying it's a very dramatic election," said my friend, Leiser Madanes, a prominent philosopher and teacher in Buenos Aires. "We don't think so."
U.S. administrations come and go, but U.S. Latin America policy remains mired in an obsession with Cuba and Fidel Castro. Even if there were a change of atmosphere at the State Department on Cuba, there's no hint from Kerry that Latin America would be a priority. The Democrats fear upsetting Florida's anti-Castro community. "Maybe it will change," my friend said, "but we know nothing about John Kerry," even after watching the presidential debates. "It was like a casting call for a film to see which of them would be the best actor to play an American president."
Madanes reminded me that only once did the presidential debates approach Latin American interests: Illegal immigration was the subject, but both candidates swerved and moved on. Those people who do pay attention to the campaign know that the war on terrorism, Iraq and domestic issues are a constant preoccupation, but that Latin America is neglected as a topic of conversation. Colombia, for example -- where a pro-Bush government is running a controversial, U.S.-financed billion-dollar effort to fight drug dealing and a generations-long insurgency -- has gone unmentioned in the U.S. campaign. Haiti, where the United States has a history of involvement and responsibility and where dire humanitarian issues demand attention, is also distant from the campaign.
So what is the relevance of the Bush-Kerry race to Latin America? I tried to answer my friend's question by saying that many Americans see the choice as between two different moral codes and by discussing the contrast between the candidates' approaches of unilateralism vs. building alliances. "You Americans tend to mix morality and politics all the time," Madanes said. "You shouldn't do that. This is a matter of dealing with practical issues and results."
As for alliance building, my friend wasn't buying that either. "What so-called alliance with the United States has ever been helpful?" he asked. "The United States takes what it wants and doesn't listen." What, he asked, did British Prime Minister Tony Blair get from marching alongside Bush into the war in Iraq? And what ability did Blair have to influence or moderate the U.S. policy?
Finally, we could agree on one of the few moments Argentines still recall as a moral stance by the United States. Jimmy Carter's administration spoke out and pressured the Argentine military in the 1970s during its Dirty War against dissidents. Lives were saved.
"That was very important, a wonderful step," my friend said. But the moment almost immediately recedes into the history of another century. "What have you done for us recently?"
-- Peter Eisner, a Post deputy foreign editor who specializes in Latin America