High hopes in the hemisphere
Many in Latin America believe Barack Obama's victory offers the chance for improved relations with the United States.

November 6, 2008 - Miami Herald


WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's historic presidential win spurred hopes throughout Latin America that the U.S. would re-engage with a region that's often had an uneasy relationship with its northern neighbor during the past eight years.

The election of an African-American to the top post of the world's most powerful country also promised to reshape racial and cultural attitudes in a region still marked by deep social divisions, observers said.

Messages of congratulations from Latin American and Caribbean leaders poured in Wednesday, with many of them noting the groundbreaking impact of Obama's win.

Leftist leaders such as Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who have clashed with the Bush administration, expressed hope that they could work constructively with Obama.


In particular, Bolivian officials hope Obama will reverse the Bush administration's anticipated suspension of trade preferences that allowed more than $150 million in Bolivian goods into the U.S. without being charged import taxes last year. ''I am sure that relations between the Bolivian government and the U.S. government are going to improve,'' Morales said Wednesday, according to Bolivia's official press agency.

The Venezuelan government suggested that Obama's win was the culmination of a wave of leftist electoral victories that started in South America nearly three years ago. On Sunday, Chávez said he was ready to talk to Obama despite the president-elect's past criticism of the Venezuelan leader.

''We are convinced that the hour has arrived to establish new relations between our countries and our regions, based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, equality and true cooperation,'' the Venezuelan government statement read.


Peruvian Foreign Minister José García Belaúnde said he hopes Obama will ''prioritize'' U.S. relations with Latin America, widely perceived as having been put on the back burner by Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Obama's win, however, promised to complicate relations with stalwart U.S. ally Colombia, which has been waiting for the U.S. Congress to approve a free-trade agreement signed by the two countries in 2006. During a presidential debate, Obama criticized what he said were the unpunished assassinations of labor leaders in Colombia while talking about the trade agreement.

''For far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Sen. [John] McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement,'' Obama said.

Despite such misgivings, Obama will feel pressure to take up the Bush administration's unfinished Latin American agenda, which includes approving pending free trade agreements and launching promised reforms of U.S. immigration laws, said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based think tank the Inter-American Dialogue.

Obama will likely push the Democratic-controlled Congress to approve the Colombian trade agreement with toughened human rights provisions, Hakim said.

The president-elect also has supported changing U.S. immigration laws to give illegal immigrants a path to become legal residents while increasing the number of legal immigrants who are allowed into the country.

''There are a lot of issues that are not rocket science and need to be addressed,'' Hakim said. ``Obama's not going to make easy strides on all of them, but he'll make it on some of them.''

Miami Herald staff writers Juan Tamayo and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.