Out to sea: Fishermen set off Oct. 23 from El Salvador's port of La Libertad in a holy procession in celebration of their patron saint.
Credit: Jose Cabezas

LIMA, Peru — For a region historically regarded as the United States’ “backyard,” Latin America has been notable in the 2012 race for the White House only by its near total absence.

During Monday night’s presidential debate, Barack Obama pretty much summed up his perspective on Latin America with the remark: “Our alliances have never been stronger; in Asia, in Europe, in Africa.”

After a pregnant pause, he then moved swiftly on to talk about how his administration was working on “unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation” with Israel to contain Iran.

The sighs from this corner of the world were almost audible.

Critics of the president argue that that rhetorical misstep is an accurate reflection of Obama’s minimal level of engagement with Latin America over the last four years, as his foreign policy has focused squarely on the Arab Spring, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the rapid emergence of China as a heavyweight geopolitical rival.

Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, did a little better on Monday, calling for more trade with the nations south of the Rio Grande.

“The opportunities for us in Latin America, we have just not taken advantage of fully. As a matter of fact, Latin America’s economy is almost as big as the economy of China,” he said in the debate in Boca Raton, Fla.

The former Massachusetts governor also took a passing swipe at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and former Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom he lumped together with the erratic, totalitarian late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

Yet a host of important issues involving US-Latin America relations, such as the illicit drug trade, terrorism, and energy policy, have largely been ignored by both candidates on the campaign trail.

Even the theme of immigration — the proverbial elephant in the room of the fate of millions of Latin Americans living productively in the US — has barely figured in their speeches.

Both candidates promise to prevent more illegal immigration while recognizing the reality that millions of undocumented migrants help power the US economy. Yet both have provided few details, including on how they propose to push legislation through a Congress that has blocked comprehensive reform for years.

It was not always like this.

From the Cuban missile crisis — the game of atomic brinkmanship that forged John F. Kennedy’s claim to greatness — to the Iran-Contra scandal that ensnared Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Latin America has regularly played a major role in US politics.

And the US has also had a massive influence on Latin America through the years. Much of that has been positive, above all promoting democracy, both by example and through specific policies, and economic development fueled by international commerce.

Yet Washington’s machinations have also had disastrous impacts on the region, too frequently backing despotic regimes and promoting economic policies that have favored US corporations at the expense of impoverished local communities. That includes its infamous support for bloody military coups against elected left-wing governments, such as in Guatemala in 1954 and in Chile in 1973.

In Chile, that led to a 17-year dictatorship that was as brutal and violent as any in the Western Hemisphere. In Guatemala, the ouster sparked decades of civil war in which an estimated 200,000 died, mainly impoverished indigenous Maya.

The legacy of those tragic interventions helps explain the animosity many on the Latin American left feel toward the US — and therefore Washington’s diminished power in the region.

With the notable exceptions of Mexico, Colombia and Chile, the left is now in power across the region and a new generation of leaders has gone out of its way to assert autonomy from the US, including stepping up trade with Russia and, above all, China.

Obama’s ignoring of Latin America during the last four years may be, in part, a response to that new reality of increasingly limited US influence in the region.

Yet the president may also have contributed to a growing sense of disappointment in the region by failing to back up talk in 2009 of a new “equal partnership” with Latin America — an apparent attempt to defuse perceptions of Washington’s traditionally highhanded dealings with the region.

The popular view that Washington takes an imperialistic approach to Latin America — and the perception that it will return if Romney wins — was summed up by Sergio Munoz Bata, in a column titled “Romney’s bellicose fantasies” in Colombian paper El Tiempo:

“If we really want to identify those responsible for the loss of prestige of US foreign policy … we would have to begin by revealing the names of the American politicians who for decades supported local dictators such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Mohamed Reza Pahlavi [the Shah] in Iran,” he wrote.

On Monday night, Romney appeared anxious to distance himself from the warmongering image of George W. Bush, at one point even noting that the US “can’t kill our way” out of the threat from terrorism.

Latin Americans, however, may be skeptical. To them, the Republican platform’s belligerent tone toward Venezuela’s Chavez recalls the 2002 coup against Chavez that the Bush administration allegedly supported, thereby actually strengthening the voluble Washington critic’s hand.

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“The current regime issues Venezuelan passports or visas to thousands of Middle Eastern terrorists offering safe haven to Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters and fundraisers,” the GOP platform states.

The Republican National Committee did not respond to GlobalPost’s questions regarding the basis for that assertion.

If he is elected, only time will tell which Mitt Romney Latin America will have to deal with — a supportive ally anxious to grow trade or a cold warrior harking back to some of the US’s most counterproductive policies in the region.

Rather than take that risk, most Latin Americans, it appears, would prefer four more years of being left well alone by Obama.

See GlobalPost’s in-depth series: If the world could vote in the US election

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