Obama looks to Latin America summit to gain Hispanic votes
REUTERS WASHINGTON PRESIDENT Barack Obama takes his re-election campaign to Colombia this weekend, using the Summit of the Americas as a platform to tout his trade record and convince millions of Hispanic voters back home he cares about the region. Spending time with leaders in Cartagena, Colombia is a way for Obama to fight an impression of neglect toward Latin America as he kept his foreign policy focus on hot spots like Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Obama needs the support of Latino voters to win key states in the November 6 election such as Arizona and Colorado, along with Florida, where he will stop en route to the summit to talk up trade opportunities with Latin America.
Though the Democratic president enjoys a strong edge over Republicans with Latino voters, many in the Hispanic community are disappointed by his failure to deliver on a campaign promise for immigration reform and by record deportation numbers during his presidency. The administration’s heavy focus on places like Afghanistan and a push to deepen economic ties with Asia have further frustrated many who would have liked him to pay more attention to, and invest more in, Latin America.
“It makes it seem as if it doesn’t have a focus for the Americas,” said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
The Colombia visit will be Obama’s fourth trip to Latin America as president, and he also heads to Mexico in June for a Group of 20 leaders’ summit.
Obama will sidestep calls from regional leaders for him to lift Washington’s embargo on Cuba and rethink the war on drugs, focusing instead on commercial ties that could grow as a result of US trade deals with Colombia and Panama and potential energy projects with Brazil.
Senior White House aide Ben Rhodes said Obama would also emphasise the family and linguistic ties that connect the US and Latin America on the three-day, two-night trip.
Rhodes said that although Obama has focused a great deal of time in office on “trouble spots” like Afghanistan, the president recognised “there is a unique quality of the relationship we have with the Americas” to build on.
Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority in the US, totaling more than 50 million people. About 22 million are eligible to vote in November, when Obama is expected to face off against Mitt Romney, a Republican who took a hard line on immigration tocompete in the primaries and who lags far behind in polls among Hispanic voters.
“Gaining the Hispanic vote is so important (to Obama) in a few critical states,” said Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University. “He’s got to do his utmost to show not only his interest (in Latin America), but his presidential stature,” he said. Latinos supported Obama, the first African- American US president, by a two-to-one margin in 2008, helping him beat Republican John McCain in closely fought states including Virginia, North Carolina and Nevada.
During the stop on Friday in Florida, a pivotal state for November with a large Latino population, Obama will lay out his election-year case for closer economic engagement with Latin America. Christine Sierra, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, said the speech at the port of Tampa - a gateway for US exports to Mexico, Brazil and Argentina - would help underline Obama’s message that increased trade can help the region prosper and also boost US jobs.