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Obamacito: Same story, different chapter

A laundromat called the Maquina Loca in Vancouver. A Spanish-language radio show plays inside. There is the constant swishing of…

By Magally Zelaya , in Latin American encounters of a Canadian kind , on February 2, 2009 Tags: , ,

A laundromat called the Maquina Loca in Vancouver. A Spanish-language radio show plays inside. There is the constant swishing of washing machines and the rumbling of dryers. The walls display posters of Latin American politicians and writers.Two Salvadorian expats are tending to the machines and the customers. The pair have been co-owners for 10 years. Both fled the Salvadorian civil war back in the 1980s and have lived in Vancouver since.

Enter Magally, a student journalist. She enters, meets the owners, makes small talk, and then sets up for an interview. She moves to Expat 1, a man in his early fifties, and holds a digital recorder to his face.


How do you feel about Barack Obama now being the president of the United States?

Expat 1:

Ahhh, I don’t have any hope! I don’t see any real hope. The experience with the United States is . . . bad, for me. The only difference is that he is a black guy. I don’t know if he is going to change the policy, but we have to see.

Turning to Expat 2, a curly-haired woman in her mid-forties, Magally asks the same question.

Expat 2:

I think the policies are not going to change. Those policies have been already set. He’s just a new face, but he himself, I don’t think he has that much power.

End scene

Around the world people are wondering just how much one man can actually change. With the United States in a recession, the global economy in crisis, wars in the Middle East, and the environment in a state, there is doubt over how far Obama can extend himself.

His election platform included a plan for Latin America called “A New Partnership for the Americas.” In it he promised a “new chapter” in relations between Latin America and the US that would remedy the “negligent” and “ineffective” policies of the Bush administration.

The new plan is sweeping and commits to fighting for democracy, security, and opportunity through increased diplomacy, immigration reform, and debt relief (for Bolivia, Honduras, Haiti, Guyana, and Paraguay) among other initiatives.

All in all, the plan sounds pretty good. After the atrocity that was American foreign policy in Latin America during the 20th century (backing civil wars, installing dictators, enforcing devastating economic policies) there isn’t much that wouldn’t be an improvement.

Greg Hershberg, the director of Latin American studies at Simon Fraser University, shared what he thinks Obama’s top three priorities should be for Latin America, in an interview posted on the Social Sciences Research Council website:

“Normalizing relations with Cuba, enacting comprehensive immigration reform, and ceasing efforts by U.S. embassies and government-supported entities . . . to influence domestic political dynamics in Latin American countries,” said Hershberg.

The expats had no faith that Obama would be able to enact these changes. I can’t say I’m much more optimistic.

It’s unlikely that Obama will make a significant change to the policies that shape the everyday lives of the Latin American people. While he will probably follow through on many of his commitments, it is hard to imagine the economies of Latin American countries taking off, the gangs disappearing, and the appalling wealth inequalities righting themselves any time in the next four years.

The things that Obama will deal with soonest will likely include easing up on the travel and remittance restrictions to Cuba, as well as taking a stab at immigration reform — simply because these are the things that will affect Americans the most.

And even if he wanted Latin America to truly flourish, too many transnational corporations and politicians have too great a stake in keeping Latin America in its current investment-friendly state (i.e. cheap labour, lax environmental and labour standards).

Things will get done, but whether they are the necessary things is another story entirely. After all, he’s only promising a new chapter, not a new book.