Yesterday's special election in Massachusetts to fill Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat had little to do with Latin America, but the implications of Scott Brown's victory over Martha Coakley will nonetheless resonate across the region. That's because the victory of the Republican candidate breaks the Democrats' super majority of 60 votes in the Senate, and will likely require renewed negotiation and accommodation in order to pass the massive health care bill that has been the top priority of the White House and congressional leaders since early 2009. Further delay on health care means that other agenda items will have to wait even longer for the political attention required to address them, and the mood on Capitol Hill could well become still more partisan and sour.
That's doubly true for controversial legislation, particularly as we move further into 2010, which is a midterm election year. Since President Obama was inaugurated one year ago today, three out of the four special elections have been won by Republicans (the Massachusetts Senate seat and the Governorships of Virginia and New Jersey). Only an upstate New York Congressional seat was won by the Democratic candidate, and that was after the Republican vote split over two candidates. Looking ahead to the elections in November, many observers predict that Democratic losses will mount, which means the White House and Congressional leadership will do whatever they can to improve the midterm prospects by juicing the economy, creating jobs and strengthening the support of the Democratic base, particularly organized labor.
Serious effort to restore the U.S. economy is certainly good for the region, because a healthy U.S. economy is critically important for much of Latin America's own economic health, in terms of trade in both goods and services (including tourism), investment and remittance flows. At the same time, an administration that has shown little appetite for pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, for example, will not likely decide that now is a good time to take action in the face of fierce labor resistance, despite the self-evident job creation potential for the United States of both agreements. The pilot program for Mexican trucks that was terminated in early 2009 has little chance of being restored. Another stimulus package designed to create jobs in the United States might well prove to be another irresistible target for "buy America" requirements. The Trans Pacific Partnership, which includes Chile and Peru at this point, is a solid initiative, but conclusion of that particular agreement is well down the road.
In addition, with unemployment remaining stubbornly high and Republicans feeling a renewed sense of momentum and purpose, the odds are unfortunately increasing that serious efforts at immigration reform will not be made until after the midterms, with particular implications for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Basin.
In the immediate term, most attention to the region will be dedicated to Haiti earthquake recovery and reconstruction. That is a monumental effort, requiring massive attention, coordination, and resource commitment. It's appropriate that this should now be the top hemispheric priority. In the wake of the unbelievably tragic earthquake in Haiti and the political upheaval in Massachusetts, other regional priorities with political overtones will likely have to wait.