Mexico City Sen. John McCain's trip to Colombia and Mexico this week made one thing clear: The shape of the United States' relationship with Latin America will hinge on the outcome of the 2008 election.
McCain, R-Ariz., and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have outlined sharply contrasting visions of how they would conduct relations in the hemisphere. McCain is committed to putting a new emphasis on the region, but would pursue many of the policies followed by President Bush in Latin America, with a heavy emphasis on counter-narcotics efforts, free trade and a push to curb illegal immigration. Obama has outlined a broad approach that relies more on diplomatic efforts and expression of soft power, through more foreign assistance, an infusion of Peace Corp volunteers and a willingness to meet with hard-line leftist leaders.
The two men's backgrounds have helped shape their divergent perspectives. McCain has visited Latin America dozens of times and took part in the bitter U.S. policy fights over the region in the 1980s, while Obama has yet to visit a single country there. But both senators are arguing the U.S. needs to pursue closer ties with Central and South America in order to address some of America's most pressing problems, including illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism.
McCain has made a point of stressing his intimate knowledge of the region during his three-day tour, lavishing praise on both Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Mexican President Felipe Calderon for their efforts to combat drug trafficking and terrorism. In a press conference Thursday at the command center for the Mexican federal judicial police, McCain lauded Uribe for launching a successful raid this week to free 15 hostages and welcomed a recent anti-narcotics agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.