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Latin America optimistic about Obama

Published: 8:41AM Thursday November 06, 2008 Source: Reuters

Barack Obama's historic election victory spread optimism in Latin America that the new US president will narrow an ideological divide with the region and end years of US neglect or hectoring.

Hopes of a drastic shift in relations may be unrealistic as Obama will have to deal with a deep economic crisis, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He faces complex policy challenges in Latin America, which has in the last decade shifted away from US influence and to the political left.

But the first black US president is a potent symbol in a region with its own history of racial oppression, and his victory has raised hopes of an easing of rocky US ties with socialist governments in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.

"Obama is a man who comes from discriminated and enslaved sectors," said Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous Indian president, who kicked out the US ambassador in September and last week suspended US anti-drug operations in his country.

"My greatest wish is that Mr. Obama can end the Cuba embargo, take troops out of some countries, and also surely relations between Bolivia and the United States will improve."

Cuba's former leader and communist US foe Fidel Castro praised Obama as more "intelligent" and "cultured" than his Republican opponent John McCain.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has called President George Bush "the devil" and has expanded ties with Iran and Russia, said Obama's win presented a chance for better ties between the superpower and one of its biggest oil suppliers.

Jamaicans drank to Obama's win and some fired guns into the air when his victory was announced around midnight.

"I am so happy. This is a real change in the US I never expected to see this in my lifetime," said Kingston resident Esmine Brown, 72.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said the Democrat's victory after eight years of Republican leadership should bring an improvement in the US government's priorities.

"I know that his main worries are social justice and equal opportunity and what he has summed up with his slogans for hope and change are definitely the same principles that inspire us in Chile," she said in Santiago.

"Good neighbour"

As Latin America has grown more economically independent and self-confident in recent years, even moderate leftist leaders in countries like Brazil and Chile have distanced themselves from the United States and expanded their ties with China and Europe.

In a speech to the Cuban-American Foundation in Miami in May, Obama laid out a vision for the region based on 1930s Franklin Roosevelt administration, when the United States ended an era of military intervention and replaced it with a "good neighbor" policy that stressed cooperation and mutual respect.

He has pledged to encourage democracy from the "bottom up" by, for example, loosening restrictions on travel to and from Cuba. He wants a more open diplomatic approach that could see him sit down with leaders like Chavez and Cuba's Raul Castro.

But Obama has used strong rhetoric against Chavez and pledges to keep the US economic embargo on Cuba.

He also voiced support for US ally Colombia when it launched a military raid against guerrilla forces camped inside neighboring Ecuador in March even though it was condemned by many Latin American governments.

He wants to expand security aid to Mexico and the countries of Central America in their fight against rampant drug violence, seen by critics as a continuation of a failed US approach on drugs.

"One thing we've learned about Obama is that he is not a dove on foreign policy," said Michael Shifter at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

"With Chavez, his particular concern will be with be his alliances with Iran and Russia."

In Brazil, home to the biggest black population outside Africa and where Obama is so popular that several election candidates used his name when they campaigned in local elections last month, the government is wary of Obama's perceived opposition to free trade.

Obama favors taxing Brazil's sugar cane-derived ethanol, which is more competitive than the US corn-based biofuel, and has been critical of free trade deals with other Latin American countries such as Colombia.

"These differences won't be instantaneously resolved by an Obama victory," said Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Brazil's minister for strategic affairs who taught Obama at Harvard.

Brazil's working class President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called on Obama to forge more "active relations" with Latin America and to end the embargo on Cuba.

Obama has opposed a proposed free-trade pact with Colombia, calling on it to do more to stop murders of labor union leaders and prosecute their killers. Democrats, who strengthened their grip on Congress on Tuesday, want a reduction in the military portion of a US aid package to Colombia, the largest outside the Middle East.

"It would be good to talk with President Obama," President Alvaro Uribe told local radio. "We have made a lot of effort and have results to show, though we are still not satisfied."

Obama's policies on Latin America

Diplomacy

Obama plans to rebuild ties with Latin America he says were neglected by the Bush administration because of its "myopic" focus on Iraq, which reduced US influence and credibility and created a vacuum that was then filled by the rise of anti-American leaders. He promises a less confrontational style.

Trade

Obama has opposed a pending free trade agreement with Colombia for failing to address violence against labor leaders. He talks of fair trade rather than free trade and wants to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico to protect U.S. jobs with improved labor and environmental safeguards. Experts say Obama, like former President Bill Clinton, will likely back free trade once in power.

Cuba

Obama would reverse Bush's policies and grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit Cuba and send cash to their families there. But he would maintain the 46-year-old trade embargo as leverage to foster a democratic transition. Obama has said he is open to talks with Cuban leader Raul Castro, but it is not clear on what conditions.

Venezuela

Obama wants to engage Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in "respectful" dialogue to try to reduce the anti-American sentiment Chavez has stirred in Latin America. He will maintain Venezuela as a major US oil supplier.

Colombia

Obama supports the continuation of US-funded programs for fighting drug-smuggling gangs and Marxist guerrillas in Colombia. He has backed Colombia's right to strike at rebels who seek safe-haven outside its borders, like the March raid on a FARC guerrilla camp in Ecuador.

Mexico

Obama backs US help to fight drug trafficking and violent crime in Mexico and Central America.

Immigration

Obama backed building a 1,070-km fence on the US-Mexico border to keep illegal migrants out, but he favors immigration reform that could help undocumented foreign workers.

Ethanol

Obama has backed a tariff on US imports of ethanol from Brazil, the world's largest producer of the crop-based fuel. The tariff is popular in US grain states.

Special envoy

Obama, who has never visited Latin America, would appoint a special envoy to establish fluid contacts with the region's leaders, a post eliminated by Bush.

Debt

Obama supports debt forgiveness for poor countries such as Bolivia, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras and Paraguay.

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