Politics & Government

In Obama, Latin America hopes to mend fences with U.S.

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's historic presidential win spurred hopes throughout Latin America that the U.S. would reengage with a region that's often had an uneasy relationship with its northern neighbor during the past eight years.

The election of an African-American to the top post of the world's most powerful country also promised to reshape racial and cultural attitudes in a region still marked by deep social divisions, observers said.

Messages of congratulations from Latin American and Caribbean leaders poured in Wednesday, with many of them noting the groundbreaking impact of Obama's win.

Leftist leaders such as Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who've clashed with the Bush administration, expressed hope that they would be able to work constructively with Obama.

In particular, Bolivian officials hope Obama will reverse the Bush administration's anticipated suspension of trade preferences that allowed more than $150 million in Bolivian goods into the U.S. without being charged import taxes last year.

"I am sure that relations between the Bolivian government and the U.S. government are going to improve," Morales said Wednesday, according to Bolivia's official press agency.

The Venezuelan government suggested that Obama's win was the culmination of a wave of leftist electoral victories that started in South America nearly three years ago. On Sunday, Chavez said he was ready to sit down and talk to Obama despite the president-elect's past criticism of the Venezuelan leader.

"We are convinced that the hour has arrived to establish new relations between our countries and our regions, based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, equality and true cooperation," the Venezuelan government statement read.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Garcia Belaunde said he hopes Obama will "prioritize'' U.S. relations with Latin America, widely perceived as having been put on the back burner by Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Obama's win, however, promised to complicate relations with stalwart U.S. ally Colombia, which has been waiting for the U.S. Congress to approve a free-trade agreement signed by the two countries in 2006.

During a presidential debate, Obama criticized what he said were the unpunished assassinations of labor leaders in Colombia while talking about the trade agreement.

"For far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator (John) McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement," Obama said.

Despite such misgivings, Obama will feel pressure to take up the Bush administration's unfinished Latin American agenda, which includes approving pending free trade agreements and launching promised reforms of U.S. immigration laws, said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based think the Inter-American Dialogue.

Obama will likely push the Democratic-controlled Congress to approve the Colombian trade agreement with toughened human rights provisions, Hakim said.

The president-elect also has supported changing U.S. immigration laws to give illegal immigrants a path to become legal residents while increasing the number of legal immigrants who are allowed into the country.

"There are a lot of issues that are not rocket science and need to be addressed," Hakim said. "Obama's not going to make easy strides on all of them, but he'll make it on some of them."

Obama's been most specific about what he'd do with perhaps the thorniest issue in U.S.-Latin American relations, the nearly five-decade standoff with Cuba.

Obama has said he'd lift regulations restricting how often Cuban Americans can visit the island and how much money they can send to relatives there. He's also said he'd be willing to talk to Cuban leader Raul Castro while calling for the Cuban government to release political prisoners.

Perhaps the biggest impact of Obama's win so far, however, has been cultural, as the region takes in the reality of a black man being elected U.S. president.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim compared Obama's victory to that of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former leftist union activist known as Brazil's first leader to come from working-class roots.

"In the case of Lula, hope overcame fear," Amorim said. "In the case of Obama, hope overcame prejudice."

Some Obama enthusiasts in the Caribbean even hosted Obama fundraisers, and in Haiti groups of Haitians met on the eve of the election wearing "Obama for president" T-shirts, caps and pins.

Undoubtedly, Obama's election has provided a powerful example to millions of black Latin Americans still suffering from systemic racial discrimination, said Carlos Moore, a Brazil-based scholar on global racism. Many of them look to the U.S. for leadership on race issues, he said.

Tuesday's election "gave us the best proof possible that you can elect a black president in any country," Moore said. "I have no doubt that blacks in Brazil, young blacks, will say now there should be a black president in a country where they are the majority."

(Juan Tamayo and Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald contributed to this article.)


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