For the past six years, Democrats have accused President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress of pursuing counter-productive policies in Latin America or of ignoring the region altogether.
Now, following their victories in midterm elections giving them control of the House and Senate, many Democratic lawmakers are promising subtle policy changes on immigration, trade and U.S. military aid.
The first sign of a changed U.S. relationship may appear today when, after years of bare-knuckle negotiations, U.S. and Colombian officials gather in Washington to sign a trade agreement.
But congressional passage of the agreement, as well as a similar deal with Peru, now seems in doubt because Democrats are generally more skeptical of trade pacts.
The most recent trade deal, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, passed by just one vote last year in the Republican-controlled House. In the Nov. 7 election, 34 House and Senate seats switched hands from supporters of the current model of international trade deals to critics, according to a study by Washington-based Global Trade Watch.
Some Democrats want to rewrite both the Colombia and Peru agreements to include, among other things, more environmental regulations and stronger guarantees for union organizers.
As for Mexico, many Democrats reject the hard-line position of some Republicans on immigration.
“Building a wall is not the symbol that the U.S. should have in its relations with Mexico, and there will certainly be a different tone with the Democrats,” said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
But John Bailey, a Mexico expert at Georgetown University, said the congressional power shift “will do little in the next biennium to rescue the U.S.-Mexico relationship from the inertia of the past five years.”
Bailey said the elections sent a mixed message on immigration, with several conservative Democrats elected in key races.
Reaching out to leftists
Many Democrats want to reduce military spending and use the money to boost programs to fight poverty, relocate people displaced by Colombia’s 42-year civil war and encourage farmers to plant legal crops.
“Democrats don’t plan to walk away from Colombia. We just want to make sure that our investment is smart,” said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., a member of the House Rules Committee.
Elsewhere in the region, analysts say the Democrats will likely urge the Bush administration to foster cordial relations with leftist leaders who have recently been elected, including Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
The goal, they say, is to prevent these governments from getting too cozy with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who stands as Washington’s fiercest opponent in the region. Democrats have been almost as critical of Chavez as the Republicans.