Commentary: Latin America could use a friend in D.C.

Despite the smiling pictures of President-elect Barack Obama and visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderon after their first meeting in Washington, D.C., Mexico will have a hard time getting attention from the Obama administration. And it won't be just because of more urgent U.S. priorities elsewhere.

Granted, Obama said after Monday's meeting with Calderon that U.S.-Mexican relations "can be even stronger, and that's going to be the commitment of my administration."

But judging from Obama's Cabinet appointments and the president-elect's own history, Mexico – currently beset by a drug war that claimed about 5,700 lives last year and deepening economic woes – will find itself without high-level friends in the new U.S. government. Consider:

• Obama has never visited Mexico, or for that matter Latin America and has no history of personal involvement with the region. The president-elect told me in an interview last year that he was planning to visit Mexico before his inauguration. He later visited Europe and Iraq, but never got to travel south of the border.

By comparison, outgoing President George W. Bush had regular contacts with Mexico as a Texas governor before his 2000 election, and had visited that country before moving to the White House.

• Obama, who made his political career in Illinois, will make his first foreign trip to Canada, according to transition team officials. Bush made his first foreign trip to Mexico.

• Mexico lost its most influential interlocutor in the Obama cabinet when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his nomination for secretary of commerce in the wake of a federal investigation into political contributions to his state office.

Richardson, whose mother is Mexican and still lives in Mexico, is a fluent Spanish speaker who knows Mexico like few other U.S. politicians. (He recently told me, with amusement, that when he informed his mother that he was running for president in 2008, she asked, "Of which country?")

Over the past few years, outgoing Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was born in Cuba but attended school in Mexico, was an important interlocutor with Mexico on trade and immigration issues. With Richardson gone, Mexico has no similar friend in Obama's Cabinet.

• Hillary Clinton, Obama's nominee for secretary of state, has traveled often to the region as first lady, but is not known to follow it as closely as other parts of the world. During the campaign, her aides went out of their way to prove that she had allegedly opposed the 1994 U.S.-Mexico free trade agreement, which Obama was vowing to renegotiate.

In her opening statement during her confirmation hearing in the Senate on Tuesday, she listed Mexico and the rest of Latin America near the bottom of her regional priorities, way below Australia and Southeast Asia and only ahead of Africa.

• Vice President-elect Joe Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is expected to have an influential voice in Obama's foreign policy team, has been very critical of free trade and other issues dear to Mexico in recent years.

"Mexico is a country that is an erstwhile democracy" and "a corrupt system," Biden was quoted by The Associated Press as saying Nov. 27, 2006. In fact, Mexico's seven decades of one-party authoritarian rule ended in 2000.

People close to Obama's transition team say that, while the withdrawal of Richardson's nomination will leave a huge hole in the Cabinet as far as Latin America is concerned, policies will matter more than personnel selections.

"More fundamental than appointments is that the values of the Obama administration are the values that Latin Americans care most about, such as a multilateral approach to foreign policy," says Nelson Cunningham, a former Clinton administration official who is close to the Obama team.

"Obama himself grew up overseas, and understands the perspective of the developing world."

My opinion: I agree that Obama's stated multilateralism, and the fact that he has not been contaminated by the Iraq War fiasco, will give him a great chance to help restore the U.S. image abroad.

But personal relationships and cultural affinities matter in Washington. Mexico – and Latin America in general – will badly need a friend in Obama's inner circle. The president-elect should be aware of this void and do something about it.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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