WASHINGTON -- Many Latin Americans quip that they should get a chance to vote in U.S. elections since the outcomes have a huge impact south of the U.S. border. So, who are Latin Americans rooting for with regard to the midterm elections in the U.S.? Who stands to win and who stands to lose if the Republicans fail to keep control of one or both houses of Congress?
The overwhelming perception among Latin Americans is that Democrats are more protectionist than Republicans, so for countries such as Colombia and Peru that are eagerly awaiting ratification of their free trade agreements with the United States, the possibility of a Democratic victory is worrisome. If the Democratic win is modest, there is a small chance that the lame-duck Congress will be able to ratify these agreements before January. If it is a resounding victory, then it's ``hasta la vista, baby.''
President Bush's trade promotion authority will expire in 2007 and will not be renewed if the Democrats take the House. Consequently, countries aspiring to sign free trade agreements with Washington (Ecuador, if Alvaro Noboa wins the second round of the presidential elections, and Uruguay, if President Tabare Vasquez persuades his left-wing partners) are quietly rooting for a Republican victory.
On the other hand, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela -- the largest members of Mercosur, the South American common market -- will be thrilled to see the Democrats take the Congress. They fear that a Republican victory will lead President Bush to renew his efforts to negotiate a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone. Trade among the Mercosur countries amounts to $26 billion, a tiny figure compared to $1.5 trillion among all the other nations in the Western Hemisphere. Brazil and Argentina fear the prospect of Latin America going ahead with the trade zone without them. If that happened, their role as the axis of South American integration would be dwarfed. Brazil and Argentina definitely favor the Democrats.
Migration is the other big issue Latin Americans will be ``voting''
on. Many countries, from Mexico to Peru, see emigration as an escape valve for social pressure and a source of foreign cash -- remittances from the U.S. totaled $45 billion last year and, in the case of El Salvador, amounted to 17 percent of the nation's GDP. Latin Americans think Democrats are more inclined to pass legislation that will help legalize immigrants already in the U.S. and expand existing quotas to fit market needs. The catch, in cases such as Mexico and El Salvador, is that even though these governments presume a Democratic sweep could provide a reasonable chance for immigration reform, both are more ideologically in tune with Republicans. (Ironically, anti-immigration Republicans tend to be lenient with immigrants from El Salvador precisely because of ideological affinity with their government.)
Venezuela is also of two minds about the election. President Hugo Chavez craves a Republican defeat but desperately needs an enemy to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of large segments of the Venezuelan population and of governments around the world that see him as a spearhead of anti-Americanism. He reckons that a weakened Bush conducting foreign policy under the influence of an emboldened Democratic Party would be forced to take some of the heat away from the relationship with Caracas, to Chavez's detriment.
Latin American technocrats who worry about the effects of the U.S.
fiscal deficit on interest rates think that one-party rule spells disaster.
Based on the experience of the mid-1990s, when a Republican Congress and a Democratic White House produced a balanced budget, they would like a Democratic Congress to rein in all that spending.
Colombia, of course, favors Republicans. Democrats are voicing increasing doubts about Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar transfer of funds to combat narco-guerrillas instituted by President Clinton and staunchly defended by the Bush administration. On the other hand, countries such as Peru, where coca cultivation is on the rise, fear Republican pressure much more than pressure from the Democrats as regards coca production.
In general, those who in the last five years have said the U.S. has lost all interest in Latin America because of the war on terrorism anticipate that a Democratic Congress will force the White House to lower the intensity of its Middle-Eastern focus. However, since most of them also tend to criticize U.S. imperialism, their real interests probably lie with a Republican victory -- to make sure the U.S. has its hands full elsewhere in the world.
To sum it all up, those hypothetical Latin Americans voters in the U.S. elections are so split or so full of contradictions that the outcome of their vote is a toss-up.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of ``Liberty for Latin America,'' is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.