Mitt Romney and Latin America

The former Massachusetts governor sees Venezuela and Cuba as threats to the region, but will hope to strengthen relations with Mexico but not before completing the border fence.

If Mitt Romney becomes president of the United States, he apparently has big plans for Latin America. 

“Neither the Bush administration or the Obama administration really focused on Latin America,” a Romney aide apparently told a conference call of reporters late last week, according to this article in Politico. 

The article quoted an aide who said President Mitt Romney would envision “larger campaigns for economic opportunity in Latin America” and that Latin America would be one of the main regions in the world Romney foreign policy would differ from George Bush or Barack Obama. 

Fair enough.

With that in mind I took great interest when on Friday Romney released his 44-page foreign policy white paper titled: “An American Century – A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals.”

(Read it in full here)

Romney is a clear front-runner for the GOP nomination, and if you believe most polling in America, if the election were held today, Romney (should he become the GOP nominee) stands a better than 50% chance of being the next president of the United States.

In Romney’s white paper, he has a section titled “Latin America” – which consists of about four meaty paragraphs spreading over three pages and making up about 750 words.

As I read it, here is what I found:

Number references to ‘Venezuela,’ ‘Cuba.’ or ‘Cuban’: 3

Number of references to “Bolivarian”: 2

Number of references to “Hezbollah”: 2 (in the Latin America section only).

Number of references to Iran: 2 (in the Latin America section only).

Number of references to former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya: 2

Number of times the word ‘terrorist,’ terrorism,’ or ‘terrorists,’ was used: 8 (in the Latin America section only).

Number of times the words ‘drug,’ ‘traffickers,’ ‘violent,’ ‘death,’ ‘mayhem,’ ‘gangs,’ ‘criminal,’ ‘authoritarianism,’ ‘socialist,’ ‘crime,’ ‘decay,’ ‘cartels,’ ‘cartel,’ ‘narco,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘infiltration,’ were used in some form, based on my rough count:  26

The number of times the word “Brazil” was used: 0. Yes, as in, zero.

I know, Mexico has drug violence Chavez gets a lot of media attention when he says something controversial, and Cuba is a hot-button political issue in America. Get it.

But Iran? Hezbollah? And no Brazil? In the Latin America section?

I asked Jo?o Augusto de Castro Neves, a Brazilian political scientist and consultant focused on international relations, to read Romney’s vision for Latin America and give me his initial reaction.

“It reflects a somewhat antiquated approach to Latin America as a whole – a problem that I believe still afflicts not only US government foreign policy framework, but also the mindset of many companies and think-tanks,” Castro Neves, who runs a Brazil politics blog, and who has advised Brazilian and American diplomats, said.

“It is a ‘cold war’ idea that Latin America is a homogeneous political entity and the ‘backyard’ of American foreign policy. The past decade or so of political stability and economic growth [in Latin America] altered that scenario quite a bit, demanding a more sophisticated approach by the US toward the region.” 

In 2011, writing an overview of Latin America without even mentioning Brazil is sort of like an analysis on the GOP presidential primary field front runners and not mentioning, well, Romney.

Romney did write that in his first 100 days he would sign a proposed ‘Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America,’ – CEOLA, as he calls it – which would, “extol the virtues of democracy and free trade and build on the benefits conferred by the free trade agreements reached with Panama and Colombia as well as…” [again, no mention of Brazil].

Romney might not be giving much attention to Brazil in his foreign policy paper, but China is. Maybe that’s why China surpassed the United States as Brazil’s largest trading partner a couple years back.

In this decade, ignore Brazil at your own peril.

Consider this:

If Romney becomes president, he will be leading America at a time when Brazil goes from being the world’s ninth largest economy to possibly fifth or sixth – perhaps in the next decade.

If Romney becomes president, he will be leading America as Brazil spends billions to re-build stadiums, highways, ports, metro lines, roads and airports. I know for a fact some US companies – (some based in Massachusetts) – are desperate for new revenue in emerging markets like Brazil, and are looking to get a piece of the action.

If Romney becomes president, he will be in the Oval Office when Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

If Romney becomes president, he will probably be in power when Brazil chooses which company to award a hugely sought after, multibillion dollar, contract for dozens of new fighter jets. The bidders are down to the French, Swiss, and US (as in, Boeing). Real jobs in America, in places like Missouri, could ride on it.

If Romney becomes president, he will be in power as Brazil’s Petrobras starts seriously extracting some of the world’s largest untapped, deep water, oil reserves off the country’s coastline.

Brazil’s GDP is more than $600bn more than that of Mexico, and about double that of Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela combined.

The state of Rio de Janeiro alone has a GDP equal to Singapore the state of Sao Paulo has a GDP slightly more than all of Poland. (See here).

Brazil is not perfect by any means. I know I live here.

But Hezbollah and Iran mentions, but no Brazil?

As @GringaInformada reminded me on Twitter, “this from the ex Gov of Massachusetts, home to one of the US’ biggest Brazilian immigrant populations (if not the biggest).”

For Castro Neves, it’s just politics. Benign indifference, as he puts it.

“I think Romney mentioned those Latin American policy issues that interest most American voters: Cuba (Florida) Colombia (drugs), Mexico (drugs and immigration), Venezuela (oil) Iran/Hezbollah (Israel, Mid East peace process, oil),” he wrote to me. “That said, I think that the fact that Latin America is not a strategic priority for the US hampers any significant change in approach toward the region.

After reading Romney’s agenda  – especially after his aide supposedly built it up so much – I was left me wondering matter-of-factly who was advising Romney on Latin America policy.

Over the weekend, I got my answer without looking too far.

A tiny article buried in the back of Folha de S. Paulo newspaper was headlined: “Mitt Romney chooses ex US ambassador to Brazil as a counselor.”

According to Romney’s website here, the two men shaping Romney’s Latin America policy are Clifford Sobel and Ray Walser.

Sobel, who served as US ambassador to Brazil from 2006-2009, is a former corporate businessman, and big donor to George Bush’s campaigns.

I can tell you he was seen by most diplomats in Brasilia as just that: a decent man, but more of a Bush donor buddy than a career diplomat deeply invested in Brazil-US relations.

(In fairness, the current US envoy to Brazil is Thomas Shannon, widely regarded in Brazil and beyond as one of America’s most experienced Latin America hands).

The other person advising Romney on Latin America is Walser, a former career foreign service officer who is now a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation focusing particularly on the “resurgence of anti-American and anti-democratic political forces in the Americas”.

The Brazil of today and tomorrow deserves to be sitting in Row A, Seat 1 in the theatre of any serious conversation about America’s overall Latin America foreign policy by presidential candidates.

Because Latin America is more than Mexican drug cartels, Hugo Chavez, and Cuba. Or Iran or Hezbollah. 

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel