Tuesday’s elections could bring some changes to U.S.-Latin America policy, but how significant they are remains to be seen. At the administration level, Obama’s second term is likely to continue the 12 years of the “war on drugs,” support for coups d’etat, funding of opposition groups in left-leaning countries, promotion of “free trade” deals and other policies that characterized the Bush administration’s approach to Latin America and which were carried on by Obama. As we have previously noted, the Obama administration has largely left Latin America policy to the State Department – itself a clear sign that it was a low priority compared to the Middle East, Asia, Europe and other regions.
It was other votes that could spell some changes in U.S.-Latin American relations. Some vocal Latin American policy proponents on the right were defeated, but committee leadership changes could result in a more right-leaning policy. Meanwhile, landmark referendums to legalize recreational marijuana use in two states – Colorado and Washington – could have an impact beyond the U.S. borders, depending on how the Federal government reacts to them.
First, Congressman Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy IV, aka Connie Mack, lost his Senate bid to incumbent Bill Nelson (D – FL). Since Mack gave up his House seat in order to run for Senate, this means that Mack will no longer chair the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and therefore will have to abandon his dream of having Venezuela declared a state sponsor of terrorism. He will be gone from Congress, but not forgotten – his entertaining conspiracy theories will still be available online for anyone that likes a good story, as will video of his classic dust-up with former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura on Larry King Live. Mack’s chairmanship of the subcommittee will likely go to Rep. Michael McCaul (R – TX), currently the vice-chair.
Speaking of conspiracy theorists, Mack’s like-minded Florida neighbor, Allen West (a Republican from the 22nd District who has said there’s 81 communists in the House of Representatives) may also be on his way out, pending final election results.
While she was comfortably re-elected, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen must step down as Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as her tenure is coming to an end. Josh Rogin wrote for Foreign Policy yesterday:
On the Republican side, HFAC committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has reached her term limit and must hand over the reins of the panel. The next five Republicans on the committee by seniority are Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Elton Gallegly (R-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Donald Manzullo (R-IL), and Ed Royce (R-CA).
The consensus on Capitol Hill is that Royce will get the job. Smith is hugely active on human rights issues but not known for leadership on the wider range of issues for which the committee is responsible. Rohrabacher is known for invoking controversy and sometimes igniting international scuffles and is likely to stay as the chair of the oversight and investigations subcommittee. Gallegly and Manzullo are retiring, Manzullo to be the next president of the Korea Economic Institute.
Royce has wasted no time in announcing he wants the chairmanship, saying he “has focused his Committee work on counterterrorism, nonproliferation and trade policy.”
Notably, on the Democratic side of the aisle, Rep. Howard Berman (D – CA) lost his seat after redistricting forced him into a contest against fellow Democrat Brad Sherman. This means Berman will no longer be Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and it could have implications for Honduras policy. Berman has recently been outspoken on Honduras in the wake of ongoing killings of civilians and against rampant corruption and impunity in the Honduran police and military, such as in this recent letter [PDF] to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He has also been an advocate of relaxing trade and travel sanctions against Cuba. While it remains to be seen who will take Berman’s place as Ranking Member, there is a strong possibility it will be Rep. Eliot Engel, currently the Ranking Member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, who has adopted an aggressive stance towards left-leaning governments in Latin America.
On the Senate side, while the Democrats have maintained control of the Senate (and indeed gained the equivalent of two seats), changes could be in store as Obama forms his new cabinet. Senator John Kerry (D – MA), currently the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is considered to be a likely pick for Secretary of State. Were Kerry to move to the State Department, he would probably be succeeded by either Barbara Boxer or Robert Menendez in chairing the committee. Menendez, notably, is Cuban-American and has been an outspoken opponent of Venezuela and other left-leaning governments in Latin America, often siding with Republicans to support hostile policies towards them. The LA Times’ Paul Richter, however, reports today on speculation that Berman is also a possible Secretary of State pick.
Unprecedented referendums in two states -- Colorado and Washington -- legalizing personal possession of small amounts of marijuana, could also have an impact south of the U.S. border. An analysis from the Mexican Competitiveness Institute suggests that the states’ reforms could mean a significant hit to Mexican drug cartels’ pocketbooks. The big question, of course, is how the Federal government will respond to the measures, but many see the states’ legalization moves as an important milestone towards ending marijuana prohibition on a national level. “Alcohol prohibition fell when a sufficient number of states enacted legislation repealing the state’s alcohol prohibition laws,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano noted in a statement.
The move by voters in Colorado and Washington (and Massachusetts, which is set to become the 18th state to allow medicinal marijuana) is just the latest sign of a widening gap between the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” and the ever-growing chorus of voices throughout the Americas calling for a change in policy. Advisers to Mexico’s president-elect are already questioning ongoing marijuana interdiction efforts if the drug is going to be legal in parts of the U.S. itself, and other Latin American governments are also noticing the disparity between the Federal government’s rigid prohibitionist stance and the sentiments of U.S. voters.