Mitt Romney, the Republican Party and Latin America

Republican Party takes “a more confrontational approach” to Latin America than to any other region of the world.

Mitt Romney set to accept nomination
Romney criticises Obama for not doing enough to secure the US-Mexican border from "undocumented migrants" and for not facilitating the movement of "documented workers" from the South [Reuters]

With two months to go before the US elections, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have begun to lay out what their domestic and foreign policies would look like should they take control of the White House. For those, though, who had hoped that Republicans had thought seriously about Latin America since they last occupied the White House, there’s very little to suggest that a Republican administration led by President Romney will improve the United States’ relationship with Latin America from where it stands today.  

Unfortunately, the Republican Party takes a more confrontational approach to Latin America than any other region of the world. The Republican Platform on US Leadership in the Asian-Pacific Community begins with a call to solidarity, “We are a Pacific nation with economic, military and cultural ties to all the countries of the oceanic rim, from Australia, the Philippines, and our Freely Associated States in the Pacific Islands to Japan and the Republic of Korea”.

On the other hand, its discussion of Strengthening Ties in the Americas begins with the ominous, “We will resist foreign influence in our hemisphere”. The Republicans are primarily concerned with what they consider the destabilising activity of Iran and Hezbollah in the region. However, at present, their fears do not appear to be shared by any other state in the hemisphere. The same goes for Cuba and Venezuela.

Republican voters might be concerned with threats emanating from Cuba and Venezuela, but the two countries do not garner the same amount of concern among the other countries of the region. Cuba and Venezuela are both currently participating in peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of Colombia.   

Republicans are concerned with what they consider the destabilising activity of Iran in the region [Reuters]

In terms of economic issues, Romney’s main criticism of the current administration’s economic approach to Latin America seems to be his belief that Obama failed to send US free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia to the Senate for ratification in an expeditious manner. Romney says that he would have done so earlier in his presidential terms had he been elected in 2008.

In terms of what he would set out to accomplish during his first year in office, Romney has promised to “launch a vigorous public diplomacy and trade promotion effort in the region – the Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America (CEOLA) – to 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 those already in force with Chile, Mexico, Peru and the members of the Central American Free Trade Agreement”.

Never mind that the benefits of free trade to the US and to the countries identified previously are contested, but few of the remaining Latin American countries – Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Cuba – are currently interested in the type of free trade that the US is exporting. It is not a matter of explaining the benefits of free trade to them yet again. The US would do better to strengthen existing agreements by working with our hemispheric trade partners to make trade freer and fairer for the region’s most vulnerable populations. 

Romney hopes that CEOLA might “set the stage for eventual membership in the Reagan Economic Zone for nations throughout Latin America and the creation of strong and mutually economic beneficial ties between the region and the United States”. By adopting the name “Reagan Economic Zone”, Governor Romney might have doomed this initiative before ever having assumed office.

It is one thing to promote President Ronald Reagan as a force for democracy in the world when campaigning for the Republican nomination or for the general election in the US. It is quite another to use his name and legacy to promote economic reform and democracy in a region where many, including several of today’s presidents, associate the former president’s tenure with torture, disappearances, murder and other human rights violations. And it is not only recent history on which Romney and the rest of the people of the Americas differ.

Romney’s campaign manager recently said that President James K Polk might be a good role model for a Romney presidency. At the same time that the Republican Party is reaching out to Latino voters, it just does not make sense to compare Romney to President Polk. Polk’s War, also known as the Mexican-American War and The United States’ Invasion of Mexico, resulted in Mexico losing nearly half of its territory to the US through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.


 Counting the Cost – The rise of Latin America

Another concern that features prominently in the Republicans’ platform towards Latin America involves the drug trade. In recent months, leaders from government and civil society have debated the merits of decriminalisation. Presidents and former presidents, as well as citizens from a variety of backgrounds, have called on the US to seriously reconsider its heavy-handed approach to the drug issue.

Governor Romney and the Republicans rightfully acknowledge the damage caused by the drug war in Latin America. In many ways, Romney and the Republicans’ proposal is similar to how President Obama already approaches the regional drug issue. However, unlike Obama, Romney does not even pay lip service to the US’ shared responsibility for the violence in the region. 

He makes no mention of reducing demand in the US as necessary to reducing violence. He says nothing about strengthening democracy and the rule of law or reducing the flow of weapons from the US to Mexico. Finally, and not unsurprisingly, Romney and the Republicans do not appear to be considering decriminalisation of illegal narcotics in any way.

Romney and the Republican Party “propose a unified effort on crime and terrorism to coordinate intelligence and enforcement among our regional allies, as well as military-to-military training and intelligence sharing with Mexico, whose people are bearing the brunt of the drug cartels’ savage assault”.

It is unclear how this approach differs from what the Obama administration is currently doing. If anything, Romney’s statements lead one to believe that his administration would take an even more militaristic approach to tackling drug production and trafficking in the Americas.

Immigration policy

On immigration, Romney criticises Obama for not doing enough to secure the US-Mexican border from undocumented migrants and for not facilitating the movement of documented workers from the South. He also criticised Obama’s policy that immigration officials to “selectively” enforce immigration laws. For those who study US and Latin American relations, the Obama administration’s approach to immigration has been much more mixed, if not negative.   

There is significant disappointment with an administration that touts record deportation numbers. President Obama did little to push comprehensive immigration reform during his term.

He did not prioritise the DREAM Act when it had the possibility of passing in late 2010. His administration extended Temporary Extended Status (TPS) to thousands of Salvadorans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Haitians, but his administration has so far failed to respond to the Guatemalan government’s repeated request for TPS.

While the Obama administration’s directive to use more discretion when it comes to deporting undocumented immigrants is welcomed, this has not stopped the US from deporting record numbers of Guatemalans and other people from Latin America in 2012.   

Romney criticises Obama for not doing enough to secure the US-Mexican border [Reuters]

It is hard to imagine that a Romney administration would pursue an immigration policy that would benefit both the people of the United States and Latin America.

As Greg Weeks, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, writes about the Republican Party’s immigration stance, “It’s hard to call it anything but extreme, as its purpose is to use government power to punish immigrants, businesses, universities and others. It’s more extreme than the statements Mitt Romney has made, though on immigration he seems not to care much and changes his mind frequently.”

In so far as Obama has helped move the US in the direction of a more humane immigration policy, his term has been disappointing.

US and Brazil relations

One area where Romney could have rightfully criticised President Obama’s approach to Latin America is with regards to Brazil. Brazil maintains the sixth largest economy in the world and has a population of approximately 200 million. In recent years, it has earned a leadership position in the Western Hemisphere and around the world.

Obama caught some flak earlier this year for not welcoming President Dilma Rousseff with a State Dinner. He was also criticised for not supporting Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nation’s Security Council.

How will a President Romney engage with one of the United States’ most important hemispheric partners? We have no idea as Brazil is absent from the Republican Party and Mitt Romney’s discussion of Latin America.

Among the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), Brazil is the only one that is absent from the Republican Party’s foreign policy section on American Exceptionalism. With regards to Russia, “The heroism – and the suffering – of the people of Russia over the last century demand the world’s respect”.

The United States “welcome[s] a stronger relationship with the world’s largest democracy, India, both economic and cultural, as well as in terms of national security. We hereby affirm and declare that India is our geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner”.

And in the East, “We will welcome the emergence of a peaceful and prosperous China, and we will welcome even more the development of a democratic China”. Russia, India and China have a place in a US foreign policy under Romney, but apparently Brazil does not.

Party platforms published in the midst of a campaign do not always accurately reflect how a new presidential administration will approach foreign policy once in office. In the case of a President Romney and US policy towards Latin America, let us hope not.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.