Obama’s Colombia

I can remember how excited I felt when the news was confirmed that November night. After months of awkwardly defending my nation and its unpopular president to my Argentine friends – I was living in Mendoza at the time – my home country had finally done something I could brag about.

The United States, after eight years of controversial wars and blustery foreign policy had elected not just a young, inspiring new leader, but a black man at that. Millions of people around the world were ecstatic, myself included.

Barack Obama in Cartagena, Colombia.

President Obama speaks with Felipe Calderon at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in 2012. Photo by Gobierno Federal.

“The symbolic significance of his run and his biography really elevated everybody’s expectations,” said Dr. Kimberly Stanton of the Project Counseling Service, which assists non-government organizations throughout Latin America. “People expected him to revolutionize all of politics at once.”

Four years of sometimes brutal reality later, Barack Obama struggles to regain electoral momentum after a first term marked by persistent foreign conflicts and a crushing economic crisis at home.

Nonetheless, the president’s impact here in Colombia, and in Latin America in general, has received generally positive reviews. Over the past four years, the U.S. revitalized relations with Cuba and Venezuela, reformed immigration laws to grant temporary legal residency to many children of illegal immigrants, and passed a free trade agreement with Colombia that promises to bring the ally nations closer together economically than ever before.

Still, some argue the Obama administration has failed to grant the region the attention it deserves, and foreign aid toward Colombia has declined significantly since the previous administration.

“There is a weaker bureaucratic support for the relationship with Latin America. It’s not a priority for the U.S. right now, which is not necessarily a bad thing per se,” explained Dr. Sandra Borda, the director of the American Studies program at the Universidad de Los Andes.

But the next few months are for looking forward rather than backwards, and determining what the president has on the agenda for relations between the United States and Colombia during the next term, should he win reelection.

“If he’s reelected, it would be great to imagine that he would rethink the region, but I feel like Latin America is seen as relatively quiet and not troubling whereas the rest of the world is more complex,” said Stanton.

Indeed, many agree that Obama’s relationship with Latin American leaders, notably Chavez and the Castros has been warmer than it would probably be with a Republican like Romney.

Hilary Clinton meets with Colombian ex-president Alvaro Uribe

Secretary of State Clinton met with then president Álvaro Uribe in 2010 to discuss continued U.S. support for its controversial Plan Colombia. Photo by El Tiempo.

President Obama’s attendance at the Summit of the Americas this year in Cartagena in particular showed a “willingness to go to foreign meetings where his policies were criticized,” according to Stanton. That tolerance of foreign criticism has been repeatedly attacked by the Romney campaign as weak and apologetic.

Additionally, Obama’s recent affirmation of renewed negotiations between the Santos administration and guerrilla groups suggests that US support could be valuable to a peaceful future in Colombia.

“By intuition you can say that a Democratic government would be more welcoming of a peace process in Colombia. I’m not sure how Republicans would view peace talks with the FARC, for example, who are also drug traffickers,” noted Borda.

Stanton agreed, adding that Democrats tend to be more focused on social concerns and human rights in the region than their opponents, a position affirmed by the most recently available party platforms.

“We believe that in the 21st century, the U.S. must treat Latin America and the Caribbean as full partners,” states the 2008 Democratic platform. “An alliance of the Americas will only succeed if it is founded on the bedrock of mutual respect and works to advance democracy, opportunity and security from the bottom up.”

The 2012 Republican platform, on the other hand, warns against “Marxist subversion and drug lords” in the Americas, specifically referring to Venezuela and Cuba as threats to U.S. national security. Both parties’ platforms mention Colombia specifically only in the context of the ongoing fight against drug producers and traffickers.

Of much greater interest to Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are the estimated 55 million Latinos living in the U.S., of whom more than 21 million are registered voters. Both parties have expended considerable resources to win the Hispanic community this election.

Democrats maintain a massive lead in registered Latino voters, claiming 51% of the population compared to the 18% who vote Republican, according to Resurgent Republic, a polling organization. Republicans hope to gain ground with the remaining 31%, who vote Independent.

“Legal immigrants understand that what the Democrats have proposed for them is more attractive than the Republicans, who want to criminalize and militarize the immigration process in a lot of ways,” mentioned Borda.

Winning over Independent voters could shift that balance of power decisively, however, and Republicans want to exploit the social conservatism of many Latino voters, the majority of whom are Catholic.

“Many Latino voters are pro-life and somewhat conservative on social issues,” said Stanton, who also pointed out that Republicans have moved away from George W. Bush’s more liberal immigration stance. “The fact that they still vote Democratic shows a focus on the Democratic policy toward immigration.”

A Spanish-language version of an Obama campaign poster

“Our Voice.” A Spanish-language version of Obama’s campaign posters. Image by Nuestravoz.

While the upcoming election could dramatically affect Colombians living in the United States, the general consensus seems to be that the Andean nation and its neighbors will remain a relatively low priority in the face of larger issues like the global economic crisis and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

“I don’t see a big vision,” confirmed Stanton, offering her prediction for a second Obama presidency. “I see good bilateral relations, but not a grand vision.”


Next month, The City Paper will look at the possible impacts of a Mitt Romney presidency. For information about how to vote from Colombia, please visit www.fvap.gov.

This article is the property of Ed Buckley and The City Paper Bogotá. Photos are used under Creative Commons license. 


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