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Obama Cant Afford to Neglect Latin America

New America Media, Commentary, Randy Jurado Ertll Posted: Aug 21, 2008

Editor's Note: As Barack Obama prepares to name his running mate, one question remains for Latino voters: Where does he stand on Latin America? This is a question the candidate can't afford to ignore, writes the commentator. Randy Jurado Ertll is executive director of the Center for Social Action in Pasadena and was a legislative aid to Democratic Congresswomen Hilda Solis.

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.

The images of Sen. Obama in talks with heads of state did indeed make him look presidential, and capable of dealing with foreign relations issues.

But is he done visiting other countries? If he is, it might prove a costly mistake. He also owes Latin America a visit. If he doesn't he could very well lose support among Latinos at home and perpetuate a lamentable trend in U.S. 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.

Barack 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 with what happens south of the Rio Grande.

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

The stakes are high in U.S.-Latin American relations. Brazil and Mexico rank in the top 10 as U.S. trade partners. The broken U.S. immigration system is still a sticking point in many bilateral relationships. Colombia, a key ally, is still in the midst of a major U.S.-backed effort to crackdown on the cocaine trade.
Obama has spoken about renewing U.S. 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 Chvez of Venezuela and the United States.

Obama's platform does call for more attention to crime and economic inequality in the Americas. But the region's leaders have heard U.S. presidents and candidates describe 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, U.S. 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 U.S.-Colombia relationship. He happened to be present in Colombia in July on the day Colombian military forces rescued three U.S. military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, all who had 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 send millions of Latin Americans to migrate to the United States.

The question remains: Will the United States pay attention to the needs of our Latin American vecinos?

This article originally appeared in Spanish in La Opinin.

Related Articles:

Drop in Remittances Sparks Debate Between Mexico and Its Migrants

Drug War -- Can Mexico Succeed Where Colombia Failed?

Mexican Narcoviolence Spills into U.S. Elections

Food Crisis Reverses Middle Class Trend in Latin America

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