From Caracas to Havana to La Paz, US President Barack Obama’s re-election victory was welcomed with a sigh of relief by many on Latin America’s left, though others cautioned that the US leader had not made the region a priority during his crisis-buffeted first term and was unlikely to do so in a second.
In Cuba, state-run news Web site CubaSi called the outcome a victory for the lesser of two evils, saying: “US elections: the worst one did not win.”
“The news of Barack Obama’s triumph in yesterday’s general elections in the United States was received with some relief and without great optimism,” CubaSi said.
On the streets of Caracas, some said they worried that a win by Republican challenger Mitt Romney would have brought a much harder line against leftist leaders such as their own President Hugo Chavez, and that they hoped another four-year term for Obama would bring relatively peaceful US-Latin American relations.
“The other guy would have cut off relations with Venezuela,” said Cesar Echezuria, a street vendor selling newspapers emblazoned with front-page photos of Obama celebrating. “It would have been a disaster for Venezuela if Obama had lost.”
Chavez has not commented since Tuesday’s vote, but during the campaign he said that if he were a US citizen, he would cast his ballot for Obama. Despite years of strained relations between Chavez and Washington, the US remains the top buyer of Venezuelan oil.
Cuban President Raul Castro’s government is also often critical of the US president, but under a Romney administration it might have faced unwelcome rollbacks of Obama policies that relaxed restrictions on Cuban-US travel and remittances, and increased cultural exchanges.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a Cuban government economist turned dissident who favors engagement between Washington and Havana, expressed hope that Obama may do more to improve relations between the two countries — even though US law stipulates that Congress has the final say on the 50-year economic embargo against Havana, Cuba’s chief complaint against the US.
“We think Obama in this second term could take some more steps, for example letting more Americans travel to Cuba,” Espinosa Chepe said.” Although we know these policies cannot be changed overnight, we also think commercial relations could be liberalized.”
On the streets of Havana, some Cubans said they had been hoping for an Obama victory, but also expressed doubts that his re-election would have any real impact on Cuba-US relations.
Javier Menes, a bartender, called it the second potential “tsunami” Cuba has dodged in a number of weeks, the first being Chavez’s re-election in Venezuela last month, given that his government provides key economic support and fuel shipments to the island.
If Romney had won it “would no doubt have produced a more bellicose rhetoric, and perhaps more aggressive actions towards Cuba, Venezuela and other left governments,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Tinker Salas and other analysts say that Obama’s administration has not deviated much from the approach toward Latin America that was taken by former US president George W. Bush.
Beyond counter-drug efforts in the region, “the US faces real challenges to its role in Latin America.
It faces opposition to its efforts to increase economic ties with sympathetic governments and to out maneuver Chinese efforts to gain a stronger foothold in the region,” Tinker Salas said.
The US remains the top trading partner of many countries in the region, with exceptions including Brazil and Chile, where China has recently taken its place.
During the presidential debates, Romney had called Latin America a “huge opportunity” for the US economically. However, the region was far from a hot topic in the election and seldom garnered mentions by the candidates — although one pro-Romney television ad in Florida had played up Chavez’s pro-Obama comments.
Ahead of the vote, some commentators in Latin America had complained that Obama and Romney were so similar in their foreign policy stances that the result did not matter much.
A recent front-page cartoon in Argentina’s Pagina12 newspaper summed up such complaints, showing a conversation between two bearded men. One remarked: “What difference is there between Republicans and Democrats?” The other answered: “Both bomb you, but the Democrats afterward feel just a little bit bad about it.”
Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose relations with the US have been testy since he expelled the US ambassador and US drug agents in 2008, noted that Latino voters were a key force in helping Obama win.
“Obama needs to recognize and pay that debt to the Latinos,” Morales said.