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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: U.S. may boost focus on Latin America

December 21, 2012

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If President Barack Obama appoints Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state to replace Hillary Clinton when he starts his second term next month, as some administration officials expect, you may see a somewhat greater U.S. focus on Latin American affairs.

It’s not that Kerry is an expert in the region or that he would be any more interested in Latin American affairs than Clinton. He’s not — just as Clinton wasn’t.

The difference would be that Kerry’s current job as chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Relations Committee would most likely be taken by Cuban-American Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. That changing of the guard and the promotion of Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., from ranking minority member of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to ranking member of the full House Foreign Affairs Committee would leave two Latin America hands in key congressional positions to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Judging from what I’m told by well-placed congressional sources of both parties, there would not be a great difference between Kerry and Clinton as secretary of state.

Both are political heavyweights: Kerry was the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009. Clinton is a former first lady who had made her own mark as New York senator before becoming secretary of state.

When it comes to Latin American issues, Kerry made his biggest — some would say only — mark in the late 1980s, when he played a key role in the congressional investigation into the Iran-contra scandal in Central America. Since then, his main focus has been Afghanistan, Iran and other world hotspots.

When I interviewed Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign, he conceded that he didn’t personally know any of the major Latin American leaders. On the other hand, his world view was much more in tune with Latin American leaders than that of then-President George W. Bush.

Congressional sources tell me that if Menendez replaces Kerry at the helm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he would push for a hemisphere-wide anti-narcotics strategy that would replace the current fragmented U.S. plans to fight drug cartels in Mexico, Colombia and Central America. The Menendez proposal would also place more emphasis on reducing U.S. drug demand.

Menendez is also a strong proponent of greater U.S. economic assistance to Latin America — a tough assignment in budget-cutting season, granted — and of investigating Iran’s activities in Venezuela, Bolivia and other Iranian allies in the region.

A supporter of U.S. sanctions on Cuba, he also has signed, along with Kerry and Republican Sens. Richard Lugar and Marco Rubio, a letter denouncing the 34-country Organization of American States for sliding into “paralysis” and failing to meet its responsibility to defend democracy in the region.

While Menendez does not get along too well with the White House, where many see him as too Cuba-focused, his appointment as head of the Foreign Relations Committee would put pressure on the administration to spend more time and energy on Latin American issues, Menendez supporters say.

Engel, in turn, told me that in his potential new job, “I will try everything I can to strengthen and enhance U.S. ties with Latin America,” and that “with Bob Menendez and myself leading the Democrats in both committees, I would look forward to both of us working to strengthen relations with Latin America.”

My opinion: The likely promotion of Menendez and Engel to top congressional jobs, as well as the growing political weight of Latinos in the United States following the crucial Hispanic support for Obama in the Nov. 6 elections, may push the president to pay more attention to Latin America over the next four years.

This combination of factors will make it easier to pass immigration reform in Congress, which would have a big economic impact on Mexico and Central America, among other things because the legalization of 11 million undocumented immigrants would prompt many of them to get legal jobs, earn more and send more family remittances back home.

But it may also translate into other U.S. initiatives, including a re-formulation of U.S. anti-drug polices and closer trade ties with Mexico, Peru, Chile and other Pacific Rim countries that are part of Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership economic plan. Obama’s second term could bring attention to Latin America that we didn’t see during his first term.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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