A New Latin America Policy Is Certain : U.S. Election Promises Relief for Eight Years of Tension

<i> Jorge G. Castaneda is a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. </i>

How Americans vote next month will affect people all over the world, but few geographical areas will be as directly influenced by the outcome as Latin America. For better or for worse--and most Latin Americans probably believe for worse--the Reagan era has had a greater impact on the hemisphere than any other U.S. Administration in memory. South of the Rio Grande, the end of this turbulent and difficult period in U.S.-Latin American relations is being looked forward to with high expectations but also with reservations.

It is a truism that one can speak of a Latin American viewpoint on anything only if the level of abstraction and generality is such that it often makes the observation virtually meaningless. But, with few exceptions, the view from Latin American capitals is that things can only improve after Ronald Reagan: that either George Bush or Michael S. Dukakis, in themselves and independently of their comparison with Reagan, represent a change for the better; and that, in relation to the main U.S.-Latin American issues of today--debt, Central America, trade and drug traffic--Dukakis is, on balance, the preferable option, more so on the first two issues than on the second two.

There is no real relief in sight for the main Latin American debtors, despite the emerging consensus that the region’s economies cannot grow with their present debt burden. This awareness is as present in the Bush campaign as in Dukakis’, but the perception lingers in many Latin American finance ministries and central banks that, regardless of the influence wielded by former Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III on Bush, the Democrats are a better bet to understand the gravity of the crisis, the irrelevance of those solutions advanced or implemented thus far, and the need for truly imaginative alternatives. It is evident that the latter will require congressionally legislated regulatory changes and a bigger role by the banks in pulling part of the load. On both counts, a Democratic Administration seems better positioned to influence Congress and maintain an independent but firm working relationship with the banks.

Of all the hemispheric issues, achieving peace in Central America is perhaps the one on which the Democrats are most clearly preferred. With the exception of the hard right in some countries and the ideological military wing in others, few Latin Americans believe that Bush would follow to the letter the Reagan Administration’s reckless policies in Nicaragua and El Salvador.


Still, Dukakis and the change that he represents are favored. Over the last eight years, many Latin American leaders, from Oscar Arias Sanchez to the opposition in Chile, have developed trustful and close relationships with many congressional and think-tank Democrats. These Latin Americans feel certain that their friends will be influential, or even directly involved, in formulating and carrying out a Dukakis Administration’s Latin American policy. While Central America has not been a decisive issue in U.S.-Latin American relations for every country in the hemisphere, it has cast a shadow on the general climate and tone of the relationship, and any change, particularly a significant one, would be welcomed.

Matters are less clear cut when it comes to trade and drugs. These issues are more important in some nations than others: Many Latin economies--unlike Mexico’s, for example--do not have an over-concentration of foreign trade with the United States. Others--Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, perhaps Venezuela--are simply untouched by the drug question, at least for now.

On trade, many in Latin America fear U.S. (and especially Democratic) protectionism. Some argue that a Democratic President would have more difficulty in countering congressional protectionist sentiment than would a Republican. Similarly, it is often thought that George Bush would continue Ronald Reagan’s relatively anti-protectionist trade policy. In spite of that policy’s negative facets--excessive and ideological insistence on a Latin American free-trade position--it still seems preferable to a relative closing of American markets.

On drugs there is a similar ambiguity with relation to the November elections. On the one hand, the Democrats evoke a certain wariness: They seem “tougher” on drugs than the Republicans and more willing to blame others for U.S. problems. Their domestic constituency may be more demanding of them in this field, and political considerations may make them more sensitive to those demands, and thus more willing to make them a factor in foreign policy. But it is also true that the Reagan Administration, whatever priority it may have attributed to drugs domestically, has followed a policy that few in Latin America--particularly in Mexico and Colombia--find attractive. There will not be much nostalgia here for the Reagan days in regional drug-enforcement relations.

All in all, the U.S. election represents a welcome relief and an opportunity for Latin America. In the worst case, the Reagan era will be replaced by neglect and inertia in Latin America policy. In the best case, a new period in hemispheric ties may begin, inaugurated either by a Democratic President who knows and sympathizes with Latin causes and concerns--the more likely scenario--or--less probably--by a mainstream, competent Republican Administration that out of sheer realism will come to terms with the region’s problems and realities.