Obama and Latin America: A New Direction?

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Reporters, CFR members, students, and other interested folks keep asking me if U.S. policy toward Latin America will change when President-elect Obama steps into the White House on January 20. The fact is that U.S. policy toward most Latin American countries will not change much under the new president. Obama will have several pressing issues on his plate when he steps into office, and Latin America is not likely to be one of them. But Obama does have a real opportunity to redirect U.S. relations with Cuba and Venezuela, and as a result change the tone of U.S.-Latin America relations.

The easier change in some respects is the relationship with Cuba. Obama won Florida with the support of the majority of Latinos in that state, though he lost the Cuban American vote. Since Cuban-Americans were not decisive in his victory, Obama doesn’t owe them anything. In addition, polls show that younger Cuban Americans were more likely to vote democratic, suggesting a longer term shift away from the core support for current U.S. policy. Obama said in the campaign he will quickly relax restrictions on family visits and remittances to Cuba. This could be a first step in a longer and larger policy shift toward greater opening between the two countries, and ultimately (after several bilateral steps) asking Congress to end the embargo.

These policy changes would transform U.S.-Cuba relations. But they would also reverberate throughout the region, ending what is often seen in Latin America as a hypocritical stance between U.S. rhetoric and policy realities. And, these changes are more likely to actually bring democracy to Cuba, allowing for new information and influences on the island after nearly 50 years of forced semi-isolation.

In terms of Venezuela, Obama‚Äôs presidency will mean that the personal animosity between Presidents Bush and Chavez will no longer affect matters of state. Second, Obama’s personal profile and life story will make it much harder for Chavez to dismiss him as a “yankee imperialist.” And third, Chavez is running into problems of his own. In addition to domestic problems of rising inflation and crime, falling oil prices limit his “petrodiplomacy” with other countries in the region – lowering the decibel of his foreign policy microphone that until now has been turned against the United States. Obama has an opportunity to redirect these relations, though here the opportunity is less clear. Even with oil prices nearer to $50 than $150 a barrel, Chavez still has significant resources to throw around. And, with domestic problems escalating, he needs a foil. The United States is an easy target, no matter who the president is. But a change on Cuba would also make much of Chavez’s anti-American rhetoric ring less true across the region, limiting its effectiveness and perhaps leading to a different bilateral dynamic down the road.