CARTAGENA, Colombia – Three years ago, when a newly inaugurated Barack Obama appeared at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, many saw his presidency as a beacon of hope for Latin America. But as he travels here tomorrow for this year's gathering, expectations among the Sixth Summit's attendees are notably lower.
Though many in Latin America still support Obama, those with more left-leaning political interests could care less whether voters in the United States choose him or the presumed GOP nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, this fall. They say it will take more than a new president to see the policy changes they would like to see from the United States.
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"If Obama is re-elected or not re-elected, the politics in the United States will be the same. It won't change," says Arnulfo Berrio Gomez, who is attending the Summit on behalf of Colombia's General Confederation of Labor, known as CGT. "There might be a change of style. But in the end, whether it's Obama or Romney, it will be equal."
Despite the seemingly deep political divide in Washington and across the 2012 campaign trail, some Latin American observers of the U.S. presidential election say that from afar, and based on issues that are of most interest to the region, the distinction between the two parties is not so obvious.
"In the United States, there is no left," argues Marco Fidel Polo Pulido, who is also representing Colombian workers at the summit. "Whether it's Democratic or Republican, it's the same politics. There, everyone is capitalist, and the left is not capitalist."
Among the diverse topics discussed this week at a pre-Summit social actors forum in Cartagena, immigration, economic cooperation, and the war on drugs tend to shape views of the United States and its president most.
According to Pulido and others interviewed at the forum, Obama has disappointed the region and has been little more than a continuation of his predecessor George W. Bush when it comes to Latin American affairs.
Even where the president would appear to distinguish himself policy-wise from Republicans, in particular on immigration where most GOP candidates have taken a harder line, Pulido points out that Obama has been no different in practice. He notes that the Obama administration is on pace to deport as many undocumented workers in one term as the Bush administration did in two.
Despite some disappointment in his regional policy, Obama retains a powerful image in Latin America, especially among ethnic minorities who saw his election, as the first U.S. president of African-American descent, as a step forward for their cause.
Efrain Mollo Flores, who represents indigenous rural farmers in Bolivia, also says that Obama's efforts to expand access to healthcare and social programs in the United States have been commendable. Still, he says that for Latin America, it doesn't matter who the next U.S. president is, as long as the overall mentality of U.S. citizens remain the same.
"The perspective and economic vision that a president has is more fixed, because it is not his. It is a group of entrepreneurs, a set of political interests. This is what prevails," Mollo Flores says. "To change this would be very difficult."
Romney, as part of his foreign policy plan, has promised to launch the Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America within his first 100 days in office. According to his foreign policy white paper, "Romney will chart a different course" from Obama in the region, adopting an "active role" through support for democratic allies, market-based economics, and destabilization of both internal and external security threats.
Diego Sueiras, president of the New Generation Foundation, an Argentina-based NGO, says even though he would prefer Obama's re-election, Romney's economic policies, which he says would do more to open up the United States to Latin America, could also be beneficial for the region. Broadly speaking, however, he too expects the current U.S. approach toward its hemispheric neighbors to persist.