U.S. election provoking interest in Latin America

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 22, 2008 

WORLD NEWS CAMPAIGN-LATAM MCT

Galixta Isturiz, an unemployed resident of the Caracas slum Petare, couldn't identify Sen. Barack Obama by name but said, "I'm for the black man."

TYLER BRIDGES — Tyler Bridges / MCT

CARACAS, Venezuela — The U.S. presidential election is attracting outsized attention throughout Latin America. Residents, intrigued by the candidates' backgrounds, are debating what a victory by either Barack Obama or John McCain might mean for their countries.

Across Latin America, newspapers are publishing front-page stories on the campaign. Participants in business meetings take time out to handicap the race. Even poor people disconnected from the global economy know that a black man is making an unprecedented bid for America's highest office. The financial crisis is drawing even more interest in the election.

"Everybody is talking about the race," said Marta Lagos, who surveys Latin America for the Latin Barometer poll, based in Chile. "It's a part of everyday conversation. A lot of people are saying, 'We should be able to vote in the United States election. What happens there has an impact on the rest of the world.' "

Latin America is beginning to suffer the effects of the U.S. financial crisis. Stock markets throughout the region have plummeted. Governments are reducing growth projections for 2009.

In the final presidential debate Oct. 15, McCain raised U.S.-Latin America issues several times.

He said he'd press for Congress to sign a free-trade agreement with Colombia that the Colombian Congress already had approved. Obama said he opposed the deal because the Colombian government wasn't doing enough to protect labor leaders. Rightist death squads are gunning them down.

McCain said he wanted to repeal a 54 cent-per-gallon tariff on ethanol imported from Brazil.

The Arizona senator also spoke darkly of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as Obama has on previous occasions.

No polling firm has surveyed how Latin America would vote, but analysts uniformly think that Obama would win the region.

The presidential election comes at a time when the United States' image has slid here. Last year, 64 percent of Latin Americans had positive views of the U.S., down from 73 percent in 2001, when President Bush took office, according to Latin Barometer's latest poll.

The Iraq war and the Bush administration's inattention to the region have damaged the United States' image here. Latin Americans give Bush among the lowest marks of any president in the hemisphere, rivaled only by their distaste for two leftist leaders, Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

This year's election presents intriguing story lines for Latin Americans. Race is a less important issue here than it is the United States, but many dark-skinned Latin Americans are quietly cheering for Obama, even if they don't know his name.

"I'm for the black man," Galixta Isturiz said. "He seems sincere and well-prepared." Isturiz lives in a Caracas slum known as Petare that frequently suffers from water shortages and electric blackouts.

McCain represents an anomaly for the region. He was born in Latin America — in Panama's Canal Zone — in 1936, when it was still a U.S. territory.

During the primary election season, before Obama beat Hillary Clinton, Panamanians liked to joke that the United States was poised to elect either its first woman, its first black or its first Panamanian.

Ironically, Gerardo Berroa, the editor of La Estrella, Panama's oldest newspaper, thinks that McCain wouldn't carry Panama.

"I sense that people feel like McCain would be a continuation of Bush and that Obama would produce change in U.S. policies," he said.

One measure of Panama's interest in the race: La Estrella published a full-page article on the day of the third presidential debate last week headlined "McCain's Disaster."

How people here view the race depends at least in part on the most pressing issues between their country and the U.S.

Lagos thinks that McCain would win Colombia. After all, President Alvaro Uribe is the United States' closest ally in the region. He's signed the free-trade deal with Washington and decimated a Marxist guerrilla group, thanks in part to billions of dollars in U.S. aid provided under Plan Colombia.

"What happens in the election will help decide the future of Plan Colombia and whether Colombia gets a free-trade agreement," said Gustavo Petro, a leftist senator there.

In Venezuela, Chavez's critics tend to support McCain because they think he'll take a harder line against their leader. Unlike McCain, Obama has said he's willing to sit down with Chavez, who's the United States' biggest headache in Latin America.

In Peru, Jose Chlimper said businessmen such as he were debating whether an Obama victory would scuttle a free-trade agreement. Peru and the United States already have signed that agreement but it hasn't taken effect. Chlimper's company, Agrokasa, recently invested $40 million to begin exporting avocadoes to the United States starting in 2011, two years after the liberalized rules are supposed to take effect.

"We are worried about the presidential elections," Chlimper said. "Democratic governments tend to favor more protectionism."

Bolivians wonder whether Obama might forge better relations with their president, Evo Morales, who expelled the U.S. ambassador last month. Interest in the election there is so high that La Razon, La Paz's principal daily newspaper, didn't go to press until late on debate night so that it could have a solid story on the final presidential event, editor Grover Yapura said.

Some political leaders in the region fear that, no matter who wins, the United States' economic problems will prevent the next president from relaxing trade and immigration rules.

For many in the region, those are the most important issues. However, "immigration reform was difficult when the Dow was at 13,000," former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga said. "It will be even more difficult now."

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