Forty-Four and Cincuenta y Uno

David Axelrod will be keeping his mustache and Willard will retire in San Diego to enjoy a mansion with a car elevator.  However, the real news comes down to two numbers:  President Obama will remain the forty-fourth President of the United States and Puerto Rico will soon be the fifty-first state.  With these two new realities in mind, what can we expect US foreign policy toward Latin America to look like in the presidential term to come?

Image courtesy of Barack Obama, © 2012, some rights reserved.

During President Obama’s first term, there were a wide variety of developments in Latin American politics.  There was a coup d’état in Honduras, while other countries in Latin America saw China become their number one trading partner, and most recently, Hugo Chavez received a second term.  Despite such large developments, President Obama announced last year that U.S. foreign policy would shift to focus on the Asia-Pacific region.  The President is missing important opportunities in Latin America due to this shift.  Instead, the focus of the President should be on the likes of increasing trade with the region, particularly with Mexico and Brazil.  It is through Latin America that Obama can greatly increase American economic prosperity.   Yet the President can also reclaim the moral high ground of the “city upon a hill” by confronting the stifling of democratic institutions in Venezuela and the constrained press in Ecuador.  As a matter of fact, U.S. domestic politics shows why a shift to Latin America is much timelier than a shift to the Asia-Pacific Region.

Yesterday, Puerto Rico held a nonbinding referendum in which Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood.  According to CNN, Puerto Ricans favored changing their status from a commonwealth by 54%.  The second part of the referendum asked what Puerto Ricans would like to change their status to, and 61% favored statehood.  This is the first time that Puerto Ricans have voted in favor of statehood; this referendum has already been held three times beforehand.  The very fact that a referendum of this nature was held in Puerto Rico (located in the Caribbean) rather than in Guam or American Samoa (located in the Pacific) shows why a shift to Latin America makes more sense than a shift to the Asia-Pacific region.  What will soon be the fifty-first state of the United States is an island where Spanish is just as widely spoken as English.  Puerto Rico confirms that the cultural ties between the United States and Latin America are long and unbreakable, and it is crucial that these ties be strengthened.

In a second term, President Obama needs to successfully integrate Puerto Rico as a state.  In doing so, he will build good will toward the United States in Latin America.  This good will would translate into increased trade with democratic partners of similar values.  It is also worth noting that this shift towards the Pacific seems unnecessarily belligerent.  With the navy focusing its might on Asia, this sends the wrong message to the United States’ most important trading partner: China.  The right call is undoubtedly to pursue a peaceful foreign policy shift towards Latin America.  If President Obama is successful in doing this, his party can reap the Electoral College votes of Puerto Rico in elections to come.  Success in Puerto Rico could also ensure continued success in swing states such as Colorado, Nevada, and Florida where there are large Hispanic populations.  Good foreign policy, it seems, is also good electoral policy.

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