Obama victory a relief for Latin American left
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — From Caracas to Havana to La Paz, 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 U.S. 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 website CubaSi called the outcome a victory for the lesser of two evils, saying: "U.S. 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 wrote.
On the streets of Caracas, some said they worried that a win by Republican 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 U.S.-Latin American ties.
"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."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has not commented since Tuesday's vote, but during the campaign he said that if he were an American, he'd cast his ballot for Obama. Despite years of strained relations between Chavez and Washington, the United States remains the top buyer of Venezuelan oil.
President Raul Castro's government is also often critical of the American president, but under a Romney administration it might have faced unwelcome rollbacks of Obama policies that relaxed restrictions on Cuban-American 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 U.S. law stipulates that Congress has the final say on the 50-year economic embargo against Havana, Cuba's chief complaint against America.
"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 pulling for Obama but also expressed doubts that his re-election would have any real impact on relations.
Javier Menes, a bartender, called it the second potential "tsunami" Cuba has dodged in a span 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 Obama's administration hasn't deviated much in the approach toward Latin America that was taken by former President George W. Bush.
Beyond counter-drug efforts in the region, "the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. economically. The region, however, 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 groused that Obama and Romney were so similar in foreign policy stances that the result didn't 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."
President Evo Morales of Bolivia, whose relations with the United States have been testy since he expelled the U.S. ambassador and U.S. 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.
Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Jorge Rueda in Caracas; and Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.