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Will Latin America become a higher priority during second Obama term?

By Mimi Whitefield and Tim Johnson, The Miami Herald –

MEXICO CITY — There’s agreement across the region that Latin America wasn’t a priority during the first term of President Barack Obama but analysts say there are issues that might raise the profile of Latin America and the Caribbean during the president’s second term.

Among them: trade, potential political change in the region, the potent voting bloc U.S. Latinos have become, immigration, changing U.S. attitudes toward drug policy and security.

But, in general, regional expectations for meaningful change in U.S. Latin American and Caribbean policy during Obama’s second term were muted.

The campaigns of both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney “proved that Latin America is not a priority for the United States,” said Simon Pachano, a political science professor at the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences in Ecuador. “Latin America existed when they were looking for Hispanic votes, but it wasn’t present in their foreign policy proposals.”

Anthony Bryan, a senior fellow at the Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies, isn’t expecting “dramatic changes” either.

“President Obama will probably have more time to spend on foreign policy but I am not sure the Caribbean is high on the list of places that require attention,” he said.

There was an acknowledgment that Obama has big issues to deal with at home — job creation, tax code reforms, the deficit and bridging party divides — while hot-button international issues, such as an imploding Syria, troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capability and the Chinese economy, will compete for attention.

The president should concentrate on getting the U.S. economy back on track because “that is the best thing we could do for Latin America” in terms of spurring trade and investment, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

“From a national security perspective, it’s very obvious we have to show the world we are capable of getting our house in order if we’re going to inspire confidence in America’s continuing role in the world,” Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, said Wednesday during a forum at the Washington think tank.

Obama’s re-election brought hope in Mexico that the United States would move on immigration reform and take action to halt a flow of automatic weapons that is fueling crime and violence.

Re-election news was splashed across all major newspapers in Mexico.

El Universal’s headline was “Obama wins,” and it added, “Latin vote decisive for his re-election.”

That heavy Latino support “opens the opportunity for immigration reform because the Latino community will demand it of him. That was the implicit deal: Obama wins partly because of the weight of the Latino vote and he must push ahead on the reform that he promised in 2008,” Genaro Lozano, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico told the website.

Lozano said Democrats are also more receptive to Mexican demands that U.S. gun shops stop selling the assault weapons that smugglers take across the border to arm Mexican crime organizations.

The Caribbean, which has long complained about the U.S. immigration policy for Caribbean people, also would like to see U.S. deportation reform, Bryan said.

Votes in Colorado and Washington state approving the recreational use of marijuana also caused a ripple in Latin America where some countries are considering marijuana legalization to undercut the influence of Mexican criminal gangs. Analysts said the votes could lead to demands for more debate on how to combat illegal drugs.

Another area where Latin American would like to see some positive momentum from the White House is trade.

During his first term the president pledged to double U.S. exports by the end of the end of 2014 as a way to increase U.S. jobs. While the U.S. was on target in the first years of the five-year initiative, progress has slowed in recent months.

Chile’s Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said he’d like to see Obama push for greater free trade in the Americas “because there are so many potential customers for U.S. products, because Latin America is doing well, because the countries are growing and becoming a more powerful economic base.”

When it comes to Cuba, charter flights to the island and the remittances that Cuba-Americans send to their families will continue. Romney had said he intended to roll back Cuba travel policy to the much more restrictive levels allowed under President George W. Bush.

“That’s good for both peoples and it helps capitalize the new private sector in Cuba,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute.

The president also picked up a South Florida ally for his policy of liberalized travel to Cuba in Joe Garcia. The Democrat defeated incumbent David Rivera, an ardent foe of any opening to Cuba, in the redrawn 26th Congressional District.

“Now there is a Cuban-American in Congress who is anti-embargo but who also strongly supports President Obama’s policies. His election breaks the unanimity of the Cuban-American delegation in Congress,” said Peters.

The Helms-Burton law limits presidential prerogatives on Cuba and it takes an act of Congress to lift the embargo, but the president could further liberalize travel to Cuba or remove Cuba from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

But most analysts say the fate of Alan Gross — a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison for trying to illegally bring in satellite phone equipment — is an obstacle to any new overtures toward Cuba.

The United States has pushed for his release but Cuba has insisted the United States must return the “Cuban Five,” a group of Cuban agents convicted of spying in the United States. “Distasteful as this might be to some people, I think this is something that has to be negotiated by both sides,” said Peters.

In Colombia where there were fears that a Romney win might mean waning support for negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, President Juan Manuel Santos congratulated Obama and said he looked forward to building on their close ties. He said he hoped “we continue working with the same goals, the same objectives and that we keep producing results.”

Colombian negotiations with the FARC are scheduled to resume in Havana on Nov. 15. The FARC is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, but the Obama administration has been supportive of the peace initiative that aims to put an end to Colombia’s almost 50-year conflict.

In Haiti, where President Michel Martelly attended an election party at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince Tuesday night, Obama’s re-election also was greeted with optimism.

A release from Haiti’s National Palace said Martelly “hoped that the bilateral cooperation between the United States of America and the Republic of Haiti will continue and strengthen in the interest of both countries.”

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