Obama & Latin America: magic or realism?

Author:Erikson, Daniel P.

Latin America and the Caribbean are no exception to the all but universal global applause for the election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States. The 33 developing countries of the Western Hemisphere broadly welcomed Obama's election to the White House. Indeed, there is no part of the world outside of Africa where the election of a black U.S. president has greater symbolic value. Latin America, which has its own dark history of slavery and racism, is home to a large African diaspora, and as much as one-third of the region's 550 million inhabitants is of African descent, including a large fraction of the population in Brazil, the vast majority of the Caribbean, and smaller communities throughout the Andes and Central America. Coupled with the fact that Latin American countries generally prefer Democratic presidents (for reasons that have as much to do with unpleasant Cold War memories of Nixon and Reagan as any specific policy agenda), Obama's emergence was a welcome event.

In a BBC poll of Latin American countries, which included opinion surveys in Brazil, Mexico, and Panama, the respondents heavily favored Obama over his opponent, Senator John McCain, and about half thought that their nation's relations with the United States would improve as a result of his election. About 60 percent of Mexicans added that it would fundamentally change their view of the United States, and slightly less than half of all Panamanians and about one-third of Brazilians agreed.

While Obama's election was hailed by virtually all the presidents of Latin America and the Caribbean, the specific responses reflected the idiosyncrasies of each country--perhaps nowhere more than Brazil, where six candidates in municipal elections legally changed their names to either Barack or Obama in an attempt to capitalize on the local popularity of the American candidate. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist who had burnished his credentials as a pragmatist by cozying up to the Bush administration, placed Obama's candidacy in a regional context, saying, "In the same way that Brazil elected a metalworker [referring to himself], Bolivia an Indian, Venezuela a Chavez, and Paraguay a bishop, I believe it will be an extraordinary thing if in the biggest economy in the world a black is elected president." Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim agreed, saying "We aren't going to deny that the Brazilian government had a good, pragmatic relationship with the Bush government, but now the relationship can be refined, and we hope to establish a relationship of partners with the new U.S. government." Lula later proposed two specific policy changes that he would like to see Obama implement: the end of U.S. agricultural subsidies and the repeal of the U.S. embargo of Cuba. In addition, Mexican president Felipe Calderon spoke with Obama about the challenge of fighting organized crime and drug trafficking, an issue also emphasized by Colombian president Alvaro Uribe along with the desire to pass the controversial Colombia Free Trade Agreement currently awaiting a vote in the U.S. Congress.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said of Obama, "We don't ask him to be a revolutionary, nor a socialist, but that he rise to the moment in the world," adding, "we hope the next government will end that savage embargo and aggression against Cuba."

Fidel Castro, the ailing 82-year old ex-president of Cuba, expressed relief that the United States had not elected McCain, whom he described as "old, bellicose, uncultured, not very intelligent, and not in good health"--proving yet again that the aging Cuban leader does not subscribe to the notion that those in glass houses should not throw stones. Castro praised Obama as "more intelligent, educated and levelheaded," but fretted that "concerns over the world's pressing problems really do not occupy an important place in Obama's mind." Another editorialist with the Cuban state-owned newspaper Granma described Obama's victory as "surprising and meteoric," which the author credited in part to McCain's fateful decision to select as his running mate "the Arctic Amazon of Alaska, Sarah Palin."

But it was Prime Minister W. Baldwin Spencer of the tiny twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda who made the grandest gesture. He promptly wrote a letter of congratulation to the U.S. president-elect, declaring that his country's tallest mountain, the 1,319-foot Boggy Peak, would be henceforth known as Mount Obama.

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