Latin America forgotten in presidential race

Latin America remains missing in action in the battle for the White House.

A 16-second sound bite about boosting regional trade from Mitt Romney was all the candidates had to say about Latin America during the campaign’s foreign policy debate. “Latin America’s economy is almost as big as the economy of China,” said Romney during the final debate in Boca Raton, Fla. Nonetheless, the region remained one of the night’s most glaring omissions.

The lack of substantive engagement on Latin America is a rare area of bipartisan convergence between the candidates. Candidates Romney and Obama have basically called for more of the same for the region: More free trade agreements and more military aid for fighting the drug trade.

Both are bad ideas.

More free trade agreements with Latin American countries would sap jobs and investment from the U.S. economy.

Mitt Romney’s call for a free trade “Reagan Economic Zone” is particularly out of touch. The Reagan era is known as the “lost decade” in Latin America — per person income actually declined regionwide during this period. In fact, reaction against the free-market orthodoxy promoted by the Reagan administration in the 1980s is why left-leaning governments now rule most of Latin America.

Washington is more isolated than ever before. Obama has done little to change this, while Romney’s proposals would actually make things worse, recasting U.S. foreign policy in the mold of the Cold War.

The candidates’ positions on the fruitless policies of the drug war are even worse. The $51 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars that Congress spends every year on anti-drug efforts have failed to put a significant dent in the production and consumption of illicit drugs.

The Obama White House has intensified the decades-long war on drugs, while Romney’s campaign claims the military escalation has not gone far enough. Neither side has engaged in a serious evaluation of the drug war, despite the unprecedented human carnage south of the Rio Grande.

Drug-fueled violence has claimed some 60,000 lives since 2006 in Mexico alone — a toll exceeding that of many conflicts. And the murder rate in Guatemala is now higher than it was during the country’s 36-year genocidal war.

Amid the bloodshed, Latin American leaders — surprisingly led by conservative U.S. allies — have ratcheted up calls for fundamental drug policy changes. Reform is likely to move ahead with or without Washington’s support.

The candidates should be engaging with these calls for change. But unfortunately, when it comes to Latin America, neither presidential contender is the “change” candidate.

Teo Ballve is a fellow of the Drugs, Security, and Democracy program of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). He can be reached at

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