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Latin America awaits Obama action

By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

"No major changes or initiatives, but a change in tone" - that is the commonly-held view of Washington analysts on Barack Obama's likely policies towards Latin America.

Colombian policemen arrange packages of seized cocaine
Colombia's war on drugs was not a major issue in the US campaign
The harsh reality for anyone dreaming of a major change in US-Latin American relations is that the president-elect will face other priorities: an economic recession in the US and two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"These will be head and shoulders over other issues, including Latin America," says Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue.

"But there will be a major change in style towards the region - less didactic and more interested in building consensus and working through multilateral organisations."

Despite huge areas of common interest, such as drugs trafficking, trade and immigration, Latin America barely got a mention in the electoral campaign.

Even the war on drugs, and the $6.2bn (3.9bn) Washington has spent in Colombia to tackle illicit drug production and improve security, hardly featured as it was not a strong issue domestically.

That is a remarkable turnaround from two decades ago when nearly one in four Americans thought combating drug use was the number one priority.

Cuba change

Analysts say there will be little domestic pressure on the Obama administration to make any changes on US drugs policy. Mr Obama has spoken in support of the current Plan Colombia and the US$400m Plan Merida for combating drugs trafficking in Mexico and Central America.

An international trade fair opens in Cuba on 3 November
Cuba will be one area that might see a small policy shift
However, one area where there will be a small policy shift is towards Cuba. Mr Obama said during the campaign he would lift the Bush administration's restrictions on family travel to Cuba and on remittances sent back to the island, policies that Cuban-Americans support.

Mr Obama said he would do this "right away" but it is not clear how soon it will happen.

However, there is little chance of any breakthrough soon on the 46-year-old US trade embargo.

"The Cuban-American lobby poured money into the Congressional contests," says Mr Erikson, "so it is unlikely Congress will break the paralysis on Cuba."

Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs agrees that in general there should be no high expectation of a dramatically different Obama policy towards the region.

"Any major action or pronouncement on Latin America will take between 12 and 18 months," he says.

But Mr Birns does see some factors that may shift US policy towards Cuba in the longer term: the discovery of reportedly significant amounts of oil reserves off Cuba which US oil companies will want to exploit, the growing number of US companies wanting to trade in agricultural goods with Cuba, and a softening of anti-Castro attitudes among second and third generation Cuban Americans.

What about a direct meeting with President Raul Castro or Hugo Chavez of Venezuela?

Mr Obama has said he is ready for dialogue, under the right conditions. Much will depend on how Mr Chavez reacts to Mr Obama, whom he will find much more difficult to ridicule than Mr Bush.

Possible deals?

An early indication could come next April when presidents from the region are due to meet at the summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez may find it more difficult to ridicule Mr Obama than Mr Bush
In an interview with the BBC, Dan Restrepo, one of Mr Obama's main advisers on Latin America, raised the possibility of "direct diplomacy".

He quoted President John F Kennedy's famous dictum: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

The president-elect has an anti-free trade reputation. He initially spoke of renegotiating the Nafta agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada, but has backed off lately. Analysts say it is highly unlikely Nafta will be changed.

Mr Obama voted in favour of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Peru, but is against the proposed one with Colombia, citing the murders of union leaders there.

"The Colombian FTA could be subject to horse-trading in the Congress even before Obama gets sworn in," says John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America (Wola). "The White House is looking to attach it to a general economic stabilisation package which may get passed."

Mr Walsh and others think that a new Congress will be more ideologically opposed to free trade so new deals with Latin America will become more difficult.

Migration

One issue of particular interest to Brazil is the current US tax on imports of ethanol, which John McCain wanted to remove but Mr Obama wants to keep. Another is the future of the Amazon. Mr Obama has spoken in vague terms of his interest in "incentives to maintain Latin American forests".

A US border patrol guard near the Rio Grande River, Laredo, Texas
Mr Obama has backed a plan to combat drug trafficking in Mexico
On migration, Mr Obama said in the campaign that he wanted stronger border control but also a comprehensive package of reforms to establish a path to legal status.

"Migration was a hot button issue," says Mr Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, "but it has receded because the context has changed. Many migrants are already returning because of the economic recession." Mexican workers have been particularly hard hit by the downturn in the construction and tourism sectors.

Mr Obama has been widely criticised for never having set foot in Latin America. Some observers do not rule out a "listening tour" by one of his top aides in the early months of his administration to demonstrate the new style and interest in the region.

In a recent survey of 18 countries in Latin America by Latinobarometro, 29% of those polled said it would make no difference whoever won the US elections. Another 31% said they did not know which candidate would suit Latin America better.

This apparent indifference and ignorance, some analysts say, is a sign of how low US influence and prestige has sunk in the region.

"Obama will be keen to be respectful and get relations back on track after the Bush years," says Wola's John Walsh.



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