It is hard to find many Latin Americans who believe that either a second Obama term or a Romney administration is likely to overcome the stunning shortsightedness that has long characterized U.S. policy toward the region. By now, the reasons for Latin America's importance to the United States are as familiar as they are compelling: trade, energy, democracy, demography, proximity.
Most Latin Americans would prefer to see Barack Obama reelected, not so much because they have great hopes about a more vigorous commitment to the hemisphere in the next four years, but rather because Obama is widely respected and seen as a responsible steward of global affairs.
Mitt Romney, for the most part, is unknown, and any perceived association between him and the last Republican administration arouses intense concern. George W. Bush was mistrusted -- again, less because of his shortcomings in dealing with the region (in fact, he was an advocate of two popular issues, immigration reform and free trade) than because of his reckless foreign policy and irresponsible fiscal management.
Regardless of who wins the presidential race, the next president will be consumed by America's profound domestic problems and distracted by what are deemed to be more urgent foreign-policy priorities: Iran, Pakistan, the Middle East, China, North Korea. Even an issue as manifestly fundamental to U.S. interests as Mexico's security situation -- drug-fueled violence has claimed some 60,000 Mexican lives since 2006 -- has, astonishingly, been absent from the campaign.
Such glaring omissions are greeted in the region with the peculiar ambivalence that still marks U.S.-Latin American relations. There is, on the one hand, bewilderment and frustration, as expressed last April by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (one of Washington's closest regional allies): "If the United States realizes that its strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but in Latin America, and if they realize that working together can create prosperity ... then we'll achieve great results," he declared.
On the other hand, some voices wonder whether U.S. indifference is in fact a blessing -- one that has made the region's sound economic and social performance over the past decade possible. While the United States has been preoccupied at home and elsewhere abroad, Latin Americans (South Americans especially) have forged deeper ties with China and other players outside the hemisphere. They have also fashioned innovative anti-poverty approaches like conditional cash transfer programs. The overall result has been moderate economic growth, falling poverty rates, and, in a number of countries, declining inequality.
Still, despite the shrinking asymmetry between the United States and Latin America and Washington's declining influence in the region, the next administration's hemispheric agenda is far from irrelevant. The bad news? Much of that agenda -- Cuba, drugs, trade, immigration -- contains an unusually high dose of domestic U.S. politics.
The modest progress Obama has made on these fronts since 2009 illustrates this very point. Many Latin Americans would like to see comprehensive immigration reform and the end of the punitive U.S. embargo against Cuba, and are therefore disappointed by the administration's aggressive deportation policy and incremental action on Cuba. (The decision not to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center -- not a Latin American issue but one of symbolic significance for many Latin Americans -- hasn't helped matters.) But Obama has taken small yet positive steps: by removing Bush-era restrictions on travel and remittance flows to Cuba and, in a move that drew applause not only from many of the 50 million Latinos in the United States but also throughout Latin America, embracing a Dream Act-lite that could give as many as 1.7 million young unauthorized migrants work permits for two years.