Can Obama Put Latin America Back on the Map?

by Dan Aspan
Special to iVoryTowerz

Tuesday's presidential inauguration marks the end of expectations and the beginning of fresh criticism of the new president. Beneath the surface of the obvious challenges facing President Barack Obama, Latin American relations blends in to the background like a flounder on the ocean floor.

Few Americans can honestly say they have followed all of the news in Latin America during the Bush administration. It was impossible to do. The media's coverage in the U.S. (especially the newspapers) of the newsworthy events in Latin America was pathetic. Outside of the 3 C’s (Chávez, Castro, and Calderón), the names of Latin American leaders are unknown to many Americans.

Take Argentina for example. When Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was elected president of Argentina, The Washington Post dedicated one column and little insight into the implications of that event.

After living in Buenos Aires for six months, it became obvious that there was much more to the Kirchner name than the Post let me know about. My time there showed me how much was going on in a place that few in the U.S. knew about. Fernandez isn't just a woman elected to office; she is the wife of the president she replaced, Nestor Kirchner. The Kirchner name means one of two things to the Argentine people: greatness or disgracefulness. That’s just the way it is. If you ask someone for their opinion, there is blunt and brutal honesty. I never had an Argentine person give me an ambiguous answer. These conversations took place during heated social unrest between Argentine farmers and the government. Fernandez' administration increased the retention taxes on crops, which led to daily protests and demonstrations from the farmers. A 45 minute bus ride to school turned into two and a half hours after disgruntled farmers cut off roads and forced motorists to take detours. You won't experience a protest like this in the U.S. And after looking at newspapers from the U.S. while living in Argentina, barely any of this information was being relayed northward. (For more background, please see: "The Spirit of Evita & Argentina's Protests" and "Argentina: Letter from Buenos Aires.")

The sad reality was that the media during the Bush administration allowed President George Bush to set the agenda. But there is hope for those interested in following more than just United States news on a regular basis. That hope is Obama. Obama has the opportunity (along with his new foreign policy team) to put Latin America back on the country’s radar, so that events like the Argentine protests don’t fall through the cracks.

An article from Radio Netherlands says many in Latin America are happy Bush ignored them. And maybe they had good reason. But after all of the talk about Obama’s promise and charisma, the new president now has a clean slate to win over one of the most interesting and diverse populations in the world. (Obama has accepted an invitation to visit Mexico early in his administration.) Let’s hope he reminds the media that the world doesn’t just consist of oil rigs and battlefields. Many times, the best news stories can be found in the most overlooked places.

(The photo of President Barack Obama campaigning in the primary season in Puerto Rico in May of 2008 is from the Obama campaign via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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