Latin America finally came to the fore of the campaign last week, when John McCain and Barack Obama both spoke in Miami, one epicenter of the U.S. Hispanic community.
As expected, Cuba was the main topic of their speeches, and both candidates went through the campaign ritual of vowing to fight for liberty in the island. If only their proposals weren't more of the same.
McCain declared that he "will not passively await the day when Cuban people enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy," but his proposal is just that: waiting until the Castro regime suddenly embraces free elections and political dissent. McCain promised to maintain present policies towards Cuba, as if almost 50 years of American embargo had brought any results.
Obama's proposal on Cuba is a little more daring, but still fails to break the status quo. The Democratic candidate would allow unlimited travel and remittances from Cuban Americans to the island, but he still promises to keep the embargo and travel ban in effect for most Americans.
Though receiving more cash and visits from their wealthy relatives in the U.S. will help improve the living conditions of many Cubans, the Castro regime will keep branding the "blockade" -- as they call it -- as an act of aggression by Washington.
The embargo and travel ban fit just perfectly into the Castros' strategy to demonize the U.S. by keeping American goods and people away from Cuba's shores. Unfortunately, little will change under a McCain or Obama administration.
How ironic that Senator McCain embraces the embargo towards Cuba, while not long ago he was one of the main proponents of normalizing trade relations with Vietnam, a similarly unsavory Communist regime that locked him up and tortured him for years.
McCAIN'S BROADER VISION for Latin America, however, is far better than Obama's. The Republican candidate once again insisted on the importance of free trade as the bedrock of U.S. relations throughout the region.
He underscored the importance of free trade agreements in building prosperity and strengthening democracy, and renewed his call for approving the U.S.-Colombia deal on an expedited basis.
For his part, though he repeatedly talked of not treating the region as a "junior partner," Obama offered a condescending set of policies that reinforce the Washingtonian arrogance he claims to want to replace. Calling for a "new alliance of the Americas" (another one?), Obama offered to save Latin America from itself.
According to the Democratic candidate, populism and authoritarianism in many countries are the results of U.S. failure to engage the region. If only Washington could rescue its southern neighbors from their own failures.
Obama -- who once promised to "perfect" the United States, seems to regard himself equally capable of "targeting every source of fear in the Americas" and "advanc[ing] freedom from want" in the region. For this purpose, he promises to "substantially increase" foreign aid to Latin America, despite the mediocre record of official assistance in lifting people out of poverty around the world.
Offering aid to governments in the region instead of trade agreements that benefit their citizens directly underscores the perception of Latin Americans that the U.S. sees them as "poor relatives" instead of equals.
More troubling is Obama's recipe against drug trafficking in Central America. He promises to escalate U.S. involvement in the region, and conditions more resources to governments on "clear benchmarks for drug seizures, corruption prosecutions, crime reduction, and kingpins busted." These "benchmarks" on sovereign governments are an affront to Obama's call for "mutual respect" between the U.S. and Latin America.
It's been widely said that Latin America has been badly neglected under the Bush administration. The solution is said to be more U.S. involvement in the region. But that is simply not the case.
Prosperity and democracy ultimately depend on Latin Americans themselves, and the policies they implement. Washington can only help by strengthening commercial ties between both sides. McCain seems to understand this. Obama still doesn't.