Political Risk Latin America Blog @PolRiskLatam

After the Elections: What Now for US Policy in Latin America?

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on December 2, 2010

by Peter Hakim for Inter-American Dialogue, November 25th, 2010.

Partisan squabbling and gridlock. That is the best guess about what will happen to US foreign policy worldwide when the new US Congress starts work in January. Latin America is unlikely to be much of an exception. President Obama’s first two years in office, when he was supported by a solid majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate, made clear how difficult it is to reshape US policy in the hemisphere, which responds mostly to domestic politics not to regional or international concerns.  In the recent electoral campaign, the critical issues in US-Latin American relations —like most other foreign policy issues—were largely ignored. Those that were raised, immigration reform, for instance, were debated as internal problems for the US, virtually without reference to other countries.

The new Congress could well assign greater importance to hemispheric affairs than its predecessor. The prospective chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is Cuban-born Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Southern Florida, who over the years has demonstrated a continuing interest in Latin America beyond Cuba. She replaces liberal Democrat Howard Berman of California, whose interests mainly lie in the Middle East and Asia. It would be a mistake, however, to think that she and her Republican colleagues will be able to redirect US policies in Latin America. Although weakened, the president will still have the dominant voice in international matters, and he retains a Democratic majority in the Senate and power to veto legislation.

Still, Republicans will not only have a greater capacity in both the Senate and the House to obstruct administration initiatives—and block the few modest policy shifts that the White House has pursued, for example, in reaching out to Cuba. They are now in position to shape the agenda of issues for consideration and influence the content of policy debates.  As the majority party in the house, Republicans will determine the subject and timing of congressional hearings and investigations, and invite most of the witnesses. House Republican leaders, including new committee chairs, will have more public visibility and greater media access. For sure, they will only be able to advance specific legislation if they are willing to compromise and make concessions. But, they now will be able to forcefully press their views on whatever issues they choose and shine the spotlight where they want it—on Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, for instance—and force the administration to be on the defensive. (continue reading… )

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