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Ticos Seeing Little Love From U.S. Hopefuls

As they closely follow the U.S. presidential elections, Tico politicians and analysts are asking, “What about us?”

Republican hopeful John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama have focused on economic woes at home and wars in the Middle East but have largely ignored Latin America.

“Except in general terms, Latin America has been absent from the debate, and that’s worrisome,” said Laura Chinchilla, who will run for president in 2010 on the center left National Liberation Party (PLN) ticket.

In the September presidential debates, which focused nominally on foreign policy, Latin America was barely mentioned.

Obama said the United States must decrease reliance on energy from “rogue states” like Venezuela, and he expressed concern about China’s growing influence in Latin America.

McCain criticized Obama’s willingness to meet with Venezuelan and Cuban leaders without preconditions. But the bulk of the debate revolved around the economy and the Middle East.

“The (Latin American) region has pretty much fallen off the radar screen of U.S. foreign policy,” said Kevin Casas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and a former vice president of Costa Rica.

Still, a basic platform on Latin America can be pieced together from fleeting references in speeches, debates and interviews.

McCain may have more ties to the region. While Obama has never been south of the border, according to press reports, McCain has visited Latin America several times – most recently in July. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 while his father was stationed at a U.S. military base there.

Still, McCain’s Latin American involvement may do him more harm than good here if he becomes president. In the 1980s, McCain served on the advisory board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom, the U.S. chapter of an international group linked to right-wing death squads in Central America, according to a recent story by the Associated Press.

Among issues that affect Latin America, McCain and Obama diverge most on trade. McCain supported the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), while Obama voted against it. Costa Rica is close to entering CAFTA, arguably the most divisive issue in recent history here.

Obama also opposes a free-trade treaty with Colombia and has said he intends to renegotiate the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the United States, Mexico and Canada. McCain backs both those treaties.

McCain and Obama, who are U.S. senators from Arizona and Illinois, respectively, have said they will support comprehensive immigration reform. In 2006, Obama backed a McCain bill that would have stepped up enforcement at the border and in the workplace, while allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the country by paying fines and back taxes. The bill did not pass, and McCain, in a nod to the conservative GOP base, has since toughened his rhetoric against illegal immigrants.

Both senators support the Plan Merida, an aid package passed by Congress in July to help Mexico and Central America fight drug trafficking and violence. Obama has said the $65 million the initiative gives Central America is not enough. (Costa Rica will receive $4.2 million.)

The two candidates delivered rare speeches on Latin America in May in celebration of Cuba’s independence from the United States. McCain said the United States has treated Latin America “like a little brother” for decades, and he said the region is “increasingly vital to the fortunes of the United States.”

Striking a similar tune, Obama said, “We cannot treat Latin America and the Caribbean as a junior partner,” and he promised to “substantially increase our aid to the Americas.”

But several analysts predicted little would change for Latin America under either an Obama or McCain presidency.

“Barring a regional crisis, the Western Hemisphere will not be a top-tier priority for the next administration, regardless of who wins the election,” Jaime Daremblum, former Costa Rican ambassador to the United States, wrote in The American, a magazine published by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Pushing comprehensive immigration reform, he wrote, would be a “big political risk” for either candidate, given opposition within both parties. And the global financial crisis, coupled with strong opposition in Congress, reduces the chances for free-trade pacts with Panama or Colombia, Casas said.

But ignoring the region would be a mistake, he said.

“To the extent that anyone is losing out from this benign neglect, it’s the U.S., not Latin America,” Casas said. “In 50 years … the U.S. will have less influence on the world as a whole than it does now. It might do well to look south and create a constructive partnership with Latin America.”



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