Fixing the mess inherited from the Bush administration will be no simple task for the next U.S. administration. In Latin America, it will be particularly arduous. The reason is simple but paradoxical. George W. Bush raised expectations greatly when he took office and announced that he was making the relationship with Latin America in general and Mexico in particular a priority. He kept his promise for seven and a half months -- until 9/11, after which the United States, understandably enough, concentrated all its energies and attention on al Qaeda and Iraq. What was less understandable was that this lasted seven years. And because of this neglect of the rest of the world and the relentless focus on Iraq and terrorism, Bush has become more unpopular in Latin America than any other U.S. president in recent memory. This is all the more paradoxical since Bush has in fact been less interventionist and less aggressive toward Latin America than any other U.S. president in recent memory.
Fortunately, if the next administration wants to change the United States' image and relationship with Latin America, it will have a unique opportunity to do so. As president, either one of the two main candidates, John McCain or Barack Obama, will enjoy a honeymoon with Latin America (and with the rest of the world), both because of his predecessor's dismal legacy and because of the nature of the most critical pending issues in the hemispheric relationship. Four challenges clearly stand out: what to do about the imminent or ongoing Cuban transition or succession; what to do about immigration reform, which is the single most important bilateral issue for a dozen nations in Latin America; what to do about the continuing ascent of the "two lefts" in the region; and, finally, if, as seems likely, the U.S.-Colombian free-trade agreement is not approved by a lame-duck session of Congress (and Obama continues to insist on revisiting the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA),