Implications of Fidel’s Passing

By Fulton Armstrong

KODAK Digital Still Camera

As a tribute to Fidel Castro, flowers and posters adorn the gates outside the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires. / Gastón Cuello / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The death of Fidel Castro last Friday night has drawn largely predictable reactions from largely predictable quarters, but the analysis of the meaning of the comandante’s passing that matters most belongs to the Cuban people.  History may ultimately absolve Fidel of his most egregious excesses and errors over the last six decades, but Cubans are the ones who will decide which parts of his revolution to keep – and which to reject or allow to fade away.  By all accounts, Cubans want to preserve some of the gains of the revolution, including their sense of national dignity and some social benefits, while seeking a vastly improved living standard.  But no one can claim to know exactly what “the people” want – and how they want to achieve it.

  • The economic reforms that President Raúl Castro launched years ago have been halting and hampered by policy contradictions and bureaucratic obstacles rooted in elites’ fears of losing political control. Processes like the 7th Party Congress’ Conceptualización have been so muted as to undermine change and breed cynicism among the population.  Raúl and his team have a roadmap that, while as unorthodox as ever, will move the economy in the right direction.  Fidel’s departure is a signal that the old-timers, perennially blamed for slowing change, represent an eventually diminished threat.  The next generation of Party leaders knows full well that their legitimacy is going to have to come from concrete results, especially improving living standards, and it needs to move ahead with the hundreds of lineamientos, laws and regulations that have already been approved.  It’s their own plan, and the excuses for non-implementation of at least the easier measures are getting thin.  Major reforms such as unifying exchange rates will be a big challenge, as for any country, but the new team at some time will have to bite the bullet.
  • On the political side, Raúl lags even farther behind. Fidel’s passing puts a lot of pressure on him to flesh out his plan to step down as President in 15 months (a commitment that so far seems solid).  Some of Raúl’s actions indicate a desire to build institutions, perhaps even the National Assembly as it moves back into the Capitolio this month; improve decision-making processes; and reduce party intervention in day-to-day matters.  But his handover of power to a new generation won’t work if his policy team stays in the shadows forever.  His vision entails them learning how to do politics among themselves and, increasingly, with the Cuban people – which implicitly entails respect for the plurality of legitimate views across Cuban society.  The Cuban people have shown they’ll not form lynch mobs the moment political space opens up.

Cubans can find support for their evolutionary change in every corner of our Americas, except perhaps one.  Reactions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean differed in tone and effusiveness, but they uniformly showed respect for the deceased comandante and support for the Cuban people.  Regional leaders called him a “giant in history” and “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba as well as Latin America” and the like, while one merely tweeted “condolences to the Cuban government” and had staff explain he’d miss the funeral because the logistics of flying to Cuba were “not easy.”  But the region’s best wishes for Cubans to find a stable path from a Castro-dominated past into the future that they collectively – in the Party and “the people” – wish to find were strong.

The outlier is, again, the United States.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s messages were statesmanlike and consistent with Washington’s sensitivity toward any country in mourning even if it has different interests and values.  President-elect Trump took a different approach.  His condolence statement focused on issues from the past and his affiliation with combatants from the Bay of Pigs invasion who tried to oust Castro in 1961 and endorsed his own candidacy last month.  He tweeted that he will “terminate the deal” of normalization if Cuba is “unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people, and the U.S. as a whole.”  Obama’s staff prematurely declared normalization “irreversible,” and Trump may be equally premature in threatening to reverse it.  Cuba’s changing on its own, and Fidel’s passing will probably give change on the island, if not in Washington, a push.  Efforts to return to a Cold War posture would probably put Cuba on the defensive and slow its transition processes – but not even Fidel could stop the march of time.

November 29, 2016

Canada-Cuba Relations Poised for Progress under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

By John M. Kirk*

Cuba Canada

Photo Credits: Wisegie/ Flickr / Creative Commons, Pixabay / Creative Commons

After a decade of ignoring Cuba under the government led by Stephen Harper, Canada is on the cusp of an era of a significant improvement in bilateral relations with the island.  Many constants supporting this longstanding relationship remain: Canada, along with Mexico, was the only country in the Western Hemisphere not to break relations with revolutionary Cuba in 1962; Pierre Trudeau was the first leader of a NATO country to visit Cuba (1976) and developed a strong friendship with Fidel Castro (who was an honorary pall-bearer at his funeral); Canadians make up the largest tourist group (1.3 million a year) there; and the largest single foreign investor in Cuba is the Canadian firm Sherritt International.

Justin Trudeau, elected prime minister in October 2015, has undertaken several significant foreign policy initiatives, mainly in Asia and Europe.  Steps to improve relations with Cuba have been taken slowly, but are noticeable.  In May Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez visited Ottawa and Quebec City, while Canada’s Minister of Tourism Bardish Chagger attended the International Tourist Fair in Havana, at which Canada was the “invited country of honor,” reciprocating an earlier visit by her counterpart.  In December the Canadian Senate held a special session to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations.  Canada has been invited as the country of honor to the International Book Fair in Havana, in March 2017, and it is rumored that Trudeau will shortly visit Cuba.  Significantly, the gradual improvement of bilateral relations is due mainly to Canadian initiatives, and not to developments in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

  • Investment and trade, however, have not kept up with diplomatic initiatives. Annual bilateral trade remains about $1 billion, mainly because of uncertainty over Cuba’s economy.  Canadian business has yet to take advantage of its privileged relationship, concerned with existing U.S. legislation and the looming wave of U.S. investment once the embargo is lifted.

After a decade of neglect, Canada and Cuba have the potential to rediscover their deep-rooted ties.  Trudeau’s willingness to work with Cuba and his diplomatic initiatives were unthinkable under the Harper government.  A complicating factor for business has been the arrest and imprisonment of two Armenian-Canadian entrepreneurs, found guilty of corruption.  Canadian civil society ties remain strong, with Canada making up 43 percent of tourists to Cuba.  Again, however, concern exists at how Canadian tourists face skyrocketing prices when Americans are allowed to visit the island.  In sum, Canada-Cuba relations are at this point characterized by political commitment to improve ties, largely untapped commercial potential, and anxiety about the ramifications of closer U.S. ties with Cuba.  The big question is whether Canadian trade and investment will provide the energy to propel relations beyond their special past status into a new era of collaboration.

August 8, 2016

*John M. Kirk is Professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada.  He is the author/co-editor of 16 books on Cuba, and also works as a consultant on investment and trade in Cuba.

Cuba: Raúl Clarifies the Lack of Clarity on Future

By Fulton Armstrong

raul pcc congress

Photo Credit: Alexandre Seltz and Sarumo74 (modified) / Google Images / Creative Commons

The report that Cuban President Raúl Castro delivered to the 7th Party Congress last weekend walked a tightrope between pressing harder for change – embracing the importance of the small, emerging private sector – and reassuring party conservatives that the basic tenets of the revolution will not be touched.  He reiterated his commitment to step down in 2018 and promote younger cadre, but he left unclear what he proposes the Cuban system look like in the future.  He defended his decision to normalize relations with the United States, but used Washington’s continuation of the embargo and “democracy promotion” and immigration policies as a rationale for not letting down the Party’s guard.  Among key points:

On Conceptualización.  Castro said this Congress was basically to give “confirmation and continuity” to policies set five years ago to update Cuba’s economic and social model,  but it kicks off a process of consensus-building around a conceptualización, which he said “outlines the theoretical bases and essential characteristics of the economic and social model that we aim for as result of the updating process.”  Private property is a major topic, and Raúl sought to reassure the party that respect for it does not mean – “in the slightest bit” – a return to capitalism.

On reforms approved previously.  The road has been difficult, he said, held back by “an obsolete mentality that gives rise to an attitude of inertia and an absence of confidence in the future.”  He referred to the foot-draggers as “having feelings of nostalgia for other, less-complicated moments in the revolutionary process,” such as when the USSR and socialist camp existed.  But he insisted that the reforms have continued advancing at a steady pace – “without hurry but without pause.”

On upcoming reforms.  Castro talked more about what will not happen rather than any new vision.  He firmly ruled out “shock therapies,” and he said that “neoliberal formulas” to privatize state assets and health, education, and social security services “will never be applied in Cuban socialism.”  Economic policies can in no case break with the “ideals of equality and justice of the revolution.”  But he confirmed that one of the potentially most disruptive reforms – unifying currencies and exchange rates – must be done as soon as possible to resolve and many distortions.  On foreign investment, he called on the party “to leave behind archaic prejudices about foreign investment and to continue to advance resolutely in preparing, designing, and establishing new businesses.”

On Cuba’s economic model.  Castro acknowledged “the introduction of the rules of supply and demand” and claimed they didn’t contradict the principle of planning, citing the examples of China and Vietnam.  “Recognizing [the role of] the market in the functioning of our socialist economy,” Castro said, does not imply that the party, government, and mass organizations stand by and watch abuses occur.

On private and state enterprises.  He said the “non-state sector” – which includes “medium, small, and micro-enterprises” – is providing very important goods and services, and expressed hope for its success.  This sector will continue to grow, he said, “within well-defined limits and [will] constitute a complementary element of the country’s economic framework.”  Castro also called for greater reform efforts to strengthen the role of – and, simultaneously, the autonomy of – state companies, telling managers to overcome “the habit of waiting for instructions from above.”    He noted that the creation of cooperatives outside agriculture “continues in its experimental phase,” with some achievements and shortfalls.

On U.S. policies and intentions.  Castro criticized Washington’s efforts to drive political change in Cuba, which he called “a perverse strategy of political-ideological subversion against the very essence of the revolution and Cuban culture, history, and values.”  He said, “We are neither naive nor ignorant of the desires of powerful external forces that are betting on what they call the ‘empowerment’ of non-state forms of management as a way of generating agents of change in hopes of ending the revolution and socialism in Cuba by other means.” Castro said that U.S. officials recognize the failure of past policy toward Cuba but “do not hide that the goals remain the same and only the means are being modified.”

Rhetoric about forever rejecting capitalism (and multi-party democracy) is standard, especially for a Party event meant to assuage anxieties of conservative factions reluctant to give up their familiar, if failed, models.  The re-election of 85-year-old Vice President Machado Ventura is another sop to the aging right as the country inches each day to its biologically imposed transition, as Fidel Castro made explicit in his closing remarks.  The pace of change in Washington is also slow in some areas, particularly the embargo and the Administration’s “democracy promotion” strategies,  but pro-normalization voices cannot be faulted for lamenting that Cuba could more effectively influence U.S. policy through simple regulatory measures encouraging business deals that will give momentum to embargo-lifting initiatives in the U.S. Congress.  All politics is local, however, and both governments seem content holding off on changing their paradigms for now.

April 21, 2016

Bolivia: Evo Wins Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Evo Morales’s landslide election to a third term – fueled by a combination of moderate policies and fiery leftist rhetoric – portends continued stability in the near term, with still no indication of how his party will continue its project after him.  Although official results have yet to be announced, and some preliminary data show Evo garnering around 54 percent of the vote, exit poll estimates gave Evo a massive lead of 60 to 25 percent over the next closest candidate, a wealthy cement magnate named Samuel Doria Medina.  Regardless, the enormous margin separating Evo from his competitors precludes a runoff race.  Doria, who also ran against Evo in 2005 and 2009, claimed that OAS praise for the elections before the polls closed was “not normal,” but he is not disputing the results and has conceded defeat.  Congratulations to Evo poured in first from his left-leaning allies – Presidents Maduro (Venezuela), Mujica (Uruguay), Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina), and Sánchez Cerén (El Salvador) – but other voices soon followed.  The victory set Evo on track to be the longest-serving president in Bolivian history since national founder Andrés de Santa Cruz lost power in 1839.  His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is also reported to have expanded its control of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, although vote tallies are not final.

Evo has achieved things his domestic and foreign detractors said were impossible.  While his rhetoric has been stridently leftist and anti-U.S. – he even dedicated his “anti-imperialist triumph” to Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro – his policies have been decidedly pragmatic and disciplined, and the results have curried favor for him among foes.  His economic czar has emphasized Bolivia’s commitment to “have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium … applying economic science.”  The economy grew 6.8 percent last year and is on course to grow another 5 percent this year.  Foreign reserves have skyrocketed; Bolivia’s are proportionately the largest in the world.  Poverty has declined; one in five Bolivians now lives in extreme poverty, as compared to one in three eight years ago.  IMF and World Bank officials, whose policies Evo largely rejected, have grudgingly conceded he has managed the economy well.  Some of his projects, such as a teleférico cable car system linking La Paz with the sprawling city of El Alto, have garnered praise for their economic and political vision.  He even won in the province of Santa Cruz, a cradle of anti-Evo conspiracy several years ago.  In foreign policy, he has good ties across the continent, but strains with Washington continue.  The two countries have been without ambassadors in each other’s capital since 2008, and talks to resolve differences over the activities of DEA and USAID failed and led to their expulsion from Bolivia.

Sixty-plus percent in a clean election for a third term – rare if your initials aren’t FDR – signals that Evo, like Roosevelt, is a transformative figure.  No matter how brilliantly Evo has led the country, however, the big gap between his MAS party and the opposition suggests political imbalances that could threaten progress over time if he doesn’t move to spread out the power.  Evo has given the MAS power to implement his agenda, but he has not given space to rising potential successors.  He has said he will “respect the Constitution” regarding a now-disallowed fourth term, but it would take great discipline not to encourage his two-thirds majority in the Senate to go ahead with an amendment allowing him yet another term.  It would be naïve, moreover, to dismiss out of hand the opposition’s allegations of corruption by Evo’s government, but his ability to grow his base above the poor and well into the middle class suggests that, for now, the fraud and abuse do not appear to be very debilitating … yet.  Washington, for its part, seems content with a relationship lacking substance rather than joining the rest of the hemisphere in cooperating with Bolivia where it can.

Other AULABLOG posts on this and related topics:  ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession; Lessons from the MAS; and Will Bolivia’s Half Moon Rise Again?

October 14, 2014

What’s Up with Cuba Policy?

By William M. LeoGrande

Photo by Rinaldo W. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by Rinaldo W. / Flickr / Creative Commons

A little over six months into President Obama’s second term, the administration is giving hints that something is afoot in relations with Cuba.  Back in 1994, Fidel Castro told a group of former U.S. ambassadors that he needed a two-term U.S. president to normalize relations with Cuba because no first-term president would have the political courage to do it.  Could Barack Obama be that president?  Efforts to engage with Cuba during his first term were frozen after the 2009 arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.  Despite evidence that Gross had violated Cuban law, the administration insisted that Gross had done nothing improper and demanded that he be freed immediately.  When he wasn’t, the U.S. position hardened: there would be no improvement in relations with Cuba, not even on issues of mutual interest, until Gross was released.  Gross is still in jail four years later; the non-negotiable demand strategy failed utterly.

The second Obama administration appears to be trying something new.  In May, the Department of Justice dropped its insistence that René González, a member of the “Cuban Five,” serve out his probation in Miami rather than Cuba.  Shortly thereafter, Cuba granted Alan Gross’ request to be examined by his own doctor.  In late May, Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with the United States, met in Washington with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson – the highest-level U.S. official to meet with a Cuban diplomat in several years. After this reportedly constructive encounter, the State Department announced the resumption of bilateral talks on immigration (suspended since January 2011), and on re-establishing direct postal service. Working-level diplomats have resolved most points of disagreement on a postal accord, a Coast Guard search and rescue accord, and an oil spill containment protocol – although the U.S. side is loath to use the word “agreement,” lest it stir up trouble with a small but loud contingent in Congress.

Although U.S. policy is no longer completely paralyzed by the predicament of Alan Gross, it remains tentative, cautious, and incremental – far from the bold stroke that Fidel Castro was hoping for from a second-term president.  In May, the State Department again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in its annual report, although the rationale read more like a justification for removing Cuba from the list—a move reportedly under discussion by the Obama team.  When the administration sent its FY2014 budget request to Capitol Hill, it again requested $20 million for “democracy promotion” in Cuba, continuing programs like the one that got Alan Gross arrested.  Radio and TV Martí, which cost U.S. taxpayers $28 million a year, continue to beam programs below Voice of America standards to a shrinking radio audience and non-existent TV viewers.  (Cubans call TV Martí “la TV que no se ve” —No-See TV.)  If Obama had the mettle to make the bold stroke, these provocative, ineffectual programs  would be on the chopping block in tough budgetary times.  More positively, the president could take the initiative by appointing a special envoy to talk turkey with Havana, and he could promote a U.S. policy debate on Cuba that’s long overdue.  Incrementalism will only take us so far.  Real change in U.S.-Cuban relations requires vision and courage – qualities Obama displayed on comprehensive health care and immigration reform.  After all, as Lyndon Johnson once said, “What the hell’s the presidency for?”

Dr. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

The Danger of Dependence: Cuba’s Foreign Policy After Chávez

By William M. LeoGrande, World Politics Review

Photo credit: ¡Que comunismo! / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: ¡Que comunismo! / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

On March 8 in Caracas, Raúl Castro, looking somber, stood in a place of honor beside Hugo Chávez’s casket during the late Venezuelan president’s state funeral. Castro was no doubt pondering what Chávez’s death means for Cuba’s ambitious economic reform program — or “updating” of the economic model, as Cubans prefer to call it. Not long after Chávez’s first election victory in 1998, he and Fidel Castro signed the first of what would become more than 100 bilateral cooperation agreements. By the time Chávez died, Venezuela was providing Cuba with some 110,000 barrels of oil daily at subsidized prices, worth $4 billion annually and representing two-thirds of Cuba’s domestic oil consumption. In exchange, Cuba provided some 40,000 skilled professionals, working mostly in health, enabling Chávez to extend health care into the poor barrios of Venezuela, thereby solidifying his political base.

With the Venezuelan economy foundering under a huge fiscal deficit, will Chávez’s successor continue this barter arrangement on the same preferential terms? If not, will the resulting oil shock derail Raúl Castro’s plan to move Cuba from a hyper-centralized planned economy, which even its architect Fidel Castro admitted no longer works, to a socialist market economy modeled on Vietnam and China?

Full article available on the World Politics Review site.

Arms, allies, and Ahmadinejad: Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Robert A. Pastor and Tom Long

Photo by: Bruce Tuten | Creative Commons | Flickr

On its 50th anniversary, the Cuban missile crisis continues to attract attention as a landmark event in U.S. foreign policy.  Unfortunately, the lessons that are often drawn from the crisis are the wrong ones – and they are predicated on a version of the history that is built on more fabrications than facts.  The lesson most often drawn from the crisis is that President John F. Kennedy’s firmness and resolve compelled Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev  to withdraw the missiles.  As Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it:  “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”  Unlike Chamberlain at Munich, Kennedy confronted Khrushchev and prevailed.

However, the more complete story that we now know – forcefully buttressed by a host of excellent books released to commemorate this anniversary – is very different, and one of the reasons is that we have learned much more about the complicated role of Cuban President Fidel Castro, who initially opposed the Soviet proposal to place Missiles in Cuba, but then felt betrayed when Khruschev decided to withdraw them without consulting.  We also learned that the nuclear warheads and a substantial number of tactical nuclear weapons were already stationed in Cuba when the missiles were detected.  If Khrushchev had not withdrawn the missiles, and the U.S. had invaded, which it was about to do, these weapons would have been used, triggering a nuclear holocaust.   More recently, we learned that Castro tried to convince the Soviets to leave the tactical missiles, which the U.S. did not know about, after the denouement of the crisis, but fortunately, Khruschev rejected that proposal.

We cannot be absolutely certain as to why Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles, but all the available evidence suggests several factors.   First, Robert F. Kennedy had conveyed a complex proposal to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin:  the U.S. would  not  invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew the missiles.  More important, he said that the U.S. would withdraw its missiles from Turkey but only on condition that this information would not be made public.  Because of this deal, Kennedy was able to “spin” the event so that it looked like we won without giving up anything.  Robert Kennedy also said that he feared that the U.S. military might take matters into its own hands if the crises were not resolved soon.  At the same time, Fidel Castro sent a long message to Khrushchev, saying he expected an imminent invasion by the U.S. and recommending that the Soviet Union launch a first strike against the United States.  Coupled with the shoot-down of a U-2 over the island and a straying of another U-2  in Soviet Asia, these various factors led the Soviet leader to fear that both he and Kennedy were losing control of events, and thus, an immediate resolution of the crisis was essential.   That is why he transmitted his decision on radio.

Today’s great U.S. foreign policy fear is that a nuclear Iran will destabilize the Middle East.  Once again, the drama plays out in the middle of a U.S. electoral campaign, as did the Cuban crisis.  Once again, there are calls for threats and “red lines.”  An honest look at the events of 1962 yields useful lessons for today.  First, we should expect our leaders to have the courage to negotiate with adversaries to avoid conflict – and to stand up to domestic voices, including generals and advisors, pressing for war.  The second, more challenging lesson requires a U.S. president to step inside Nikita Khrushchev’s shoes.  The Soviet premier was able to stand up to an ally to avoid being dragged into a war with nuclear ramifications.  If Israel insists on a pre-emptive attack on Iran, will a U.S. president have the courage to restrain his ally, as Khrushchev had in restraining Fidel Castro?

Robert A. Pastor is a professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Latin American and Latinos Studies. He has served as National Security Advisor for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter, and he was a Senior Fellow and director of programs on democracy, Latin America, and China at the Carter Center. Most recently, he is the author of The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future.

Tom Long is a doctoral research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

ALBA’s Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Discussion of the U.S. election in  the countries roughly aligned under the banner of the “Bolivarian Alliance” (ALBA) – Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina – generally reflects their own polarized domestic politics.  In Venezuela, comparisons between the two countries electoral campaigns were common.  Washington-based commentator Moisés Naím suggested that Romney could learn from Venezuelan Presidential candidate Capriles’s empathy and inclusiveness in order to unseat Obama.  Andrés Correa ripped President Obama, saying he needs to take Chávez more seriously and needs “an atlas and a compass so he can figure out where he is and come to understand that the United States has more connections with Latin America than with any other part of the world.”  In a column that appeared in several countries, Argentine Ricardo Trotti praised the civic spirit of the first U.S. Presidential debate, and took Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández to task for not engaging in debates.  “The fear of debating implies a fear of democracy,” he wrote.  In Nicaragua, former education minister Humberto Belli Pereira made a similar point in La Prensa, as did a commentator in Bolivia’s El Deber.

Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama as being naïve about the pernicious influence of the “failed ideology” of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Castro brothers attracted wide coverage throughout the region – with predictable reactions from each side.  In ALBA countries, opposition media evinced skepticism of Obama and appreciation for Romney’s promises to take a hard line against Chávez, and pro-government outlets portrayed the Republican as a loose cannon who trumpets Manifest Destiny and military options.  Chávez’s reference to Romney as “crazy” during the primaries set the tone for some media.  On Aporrea, a popular pro-Chávez online forum, one commentator said he preferred Clinton Eastwood’s empty chair to either Romney or Obama.  In Argentina, Martin Kanenguiser wrote in La Nación that his country could only “tie or lose” in the U.S. election, particularly in regard to the Argentine relationship with international financial institutions.  The 2011 elections in Argentina, followed by the U.S. 2012 contest, have contributed to a sour atmosphere for bilateral relations, noted Leandro Morgenfeld in Marcha.

That the U.S. election has become polarizing illustrates the challenges the new U.S. administration will face in 2013.  If Romney wins and follows through on his rhetoric, he might please hardliners in the U.S. and opposition groups in ALBA-aligned countries, but relations will become even more bitter.  If Obama is re-elected, those opposition groups will continue seeking support for their own agendas and pressure from Washington on ALBA governments. However, the dearth of high level attention would likely continue in a second Obama administration, leaving bilateral relationships to stagnate.  More likely, the real choice in U.S.-ALBA relations will be between empty rhetoric and deafening silence – while further exposing the limits of U.S. influence in the region.

South America: Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Photo is in the public domain

Media in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, but only in Colombia do commentators seem to sense that November’s vote could have a direct impact on their country.  Colombian opinion-makers have not articulated specific concerns; their attention appears premised merely on the immensity of the relationship.  In Peru, commentators have noted concern about the positions advocated in the Republican primaries on a host of issues, such as immigration and the Cold War optic the GOP candidates espoused.  Chileans are following the horse race with curiosity but little mention of its potential implications.  In these countries, which are generally open to working with Washington, there is dissatisfaction with Obama but greater trepidation about a return to the foreign policies that characterized the Bush-Cheney era.  “Obama losing would not matter much,” wrote Antonio Caballero in Colombia’s Semana.  “But what would matter, a lot, is his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning.”  The columnist said it would be like re-electing Hoover after four years of Roosevelt.

Commentators fret that Romney’s swing right during the primaries proves he is unable to stand up to what they describe as conservative, white Tea Partiers on issues including gun control and taxes, but especially on immigration.  In Diario Correo, Peruvian Isaac Bigio wrote that Romney and Ryan would “launch an offensive against immigrants.”  On foreign policy, commentators see Obama’s record as mediocre.  In Colombia, the president gains points for passing the free trade agreement, but loses them for an overall lack of focus on the hemisphere.  But Romney’s rhetoric, punctuated by swipes at Russia and what he labeled a Chávez-Castro axis in the hemisphere, has created uneasy feelings.  “Romney advocates an aggressive discourse and hard hand in international relations,”writes Sergio Muñoz Bata of Bogota’s El Tiempo.  “If this sounds like a repetition of Bush’s policies, that is because those who dictate the foreign policy of the Republican candidate today are the same people who dictated Bush’s policies yesterday.”  Peruvian Santiago Pérez writes in Los Andes that Romney might “harden the U.S. position against ALBA…and try to intimidate (probably unsuccessfully) his unthreatening Bolivarian enemies.”  A return of the GOP could pose problems for the ongoing talks with the FARC and ELN, moderate Colombians fear.  Writing in Portafolio, Ricardo Ávila Pinto noted that Bogotá should be wary of “the U.S. reaction to any eventual success in the peace process with the FARC.”  Likewise, Chile’s Ernesto Ottone writes that Romney’s “uncultured simple-mindedness in foreign affairs responds to identity-based fanaticism with a warlike tone.”

A consistent theme is that the 2012 election lacks the hope of four years prior – hope for more effective U.S. partnership with the region, which Obama promised at the Summit of the Americas soon after his inauguration but has failed to deliver.  Many outlets reported former President Jimmy Carter’s comment that neither candidate was likely to pay much attention to the region.   While Colombian and Peruvian media reflect public concerns about immigration, the most prevalent fear is that a return to strident rhetoric would only heighten tensions between the U.S. and ALBA-aligned countries.  Colombia, Peru, and Chile don’t want to be stuck in the middle. There are no great expectations for improvement, but there is considerable worry about further decline.