Southern discomfort

Southern discomfort

Obama must visit Latin America to show latino voters he cares

By Randy Jurado Ertll 09/11/2008

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Sen. Barack Obama’s recent trip to Europe and the Middle East was quite impressive, providing him with credibility as key leaders took time out of their busy schedules to meet with him. Images of Obama in talks with heads of state made him appear presidential and capable of dealing with foreign relations issues.

But is he finished visiting other countries? If he is, it might prove a costly mistake. He also owes Latin America a visit. If he doesn’t go there, he could very well lose support among Latinos at home and perpetuate a lamentable trend in US foreign policy since the 1990s — the neglect of Latin America.

In this sense, Sen. John McCain is ahead of the game since he already has visited Mexico and Colombia.

Obama needs to begin now if he is to strengthen his relationship with Latin American leaders. He cannot afford to ignore the roots of the more than 40 million Latinos living in the United States. Any relationship-building he can achieve with Latin American presidents will enhance his image within the growing Latino electorate, where his support is strong but not invulnerable to erosion.

If Obama does not act quickly, then McCain will continue to solidify his relationships with Mexico and other key countries and appear to be the candidate concerned about what happens south of the Rio Grande.

President George W. Bush did, in fact, raise his profile among Mexican-Americans when, as governor of Texas, he continually met with Mexican government officials. President Bush was re-elected in 2004 in part by obtaining a respectable percentage of the Latino vote.

The stakes are high in US-Latin American relations. As US trade partners, Brazil and Mexico rank in the top 10. The broken US immigration system is still a sticking point in many bilateral relationships. Colombia, a key ally, is still in the midst of a major US-backed effort to crack down on the cocaine trade. Obama has spoken about renewing US leadership in Latin America, calling for a bold “new alliance of the Americas” at a May 23 speech in Miami, but actions speak louder than words.

We need to know if Latin America is as important as Europe and the Middle East to this candidate and his foreign policy team. The only way to demonstrate that is via a high-profile visit to key Latin American countries. We need more in-depth information about Obama’s position regarding the embargo on communist Cuba and how he will handle the delicate relationship between President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and the United States.

Obama’s platform calls for more attention to crime and economic inequality in the Americas. But the region’s leaders have heard US presidents and candidates proclaim sweeping visions of cooperation many times, only to feel neglected again after the end of the election cycle.

After the Cold War and the return of peace to war-wracked Central America, the United States no longer saw the need to invest heavily in fighting communism and influencing the hearts and minds of Latin Americans.

In the 1990s, US aid to Latin America was reduced tremendously. One of the exceptions has been Colombia, where the United States has invested billions through Plan Colombia in order to eradicate coca leaf, the main ingredient used to produce cocaine.

McCain seems to recognize the importance of the US-Colombia relationship. He happened to be present in Colombia in July on the day Colombian military forces rescued three US military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who had all been held hostage for years by rebels.

It was a media coup for McCain, who praised Colombia’s progress and called it a “beacon of hope” for the region.

We need to know if Latin America will truly become a priority for Obama. He still has the opportunity to make his case — and he can be sure that Latino voters will be paying attention if he visits Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, and perhaps even Brazil, an emerging economic and energy power.

We need to know more about how both presidential candidates will handle future trade agreements, immigration, foreign investment and poverty issues that affect Latin America. These are at the root of the “push” factors that propel millions of Latin Americans migrating to the United States.

The question remains: Will the US pay attention to the needs of our Latin American vecinos?
Randy Jurado Ertll is executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena. Contact him at


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