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Shift in U.S. Congress may affect trade, immigration

With Democrats likely taking control of Congress, Washington's approach to Latin America could change.

Miami Herald, November 9, 2006

Democratic control of the U.S. House and perhaps the Senate may affect U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean by clearing the way for sweeping immigration reforms but casting a shadow over two crucial free-trade agreements and U.S. antidrug aid to Colombia, analysts say.

The overall dynamics of hemispheric relations aren't likely to change dramatically, the analysts said. In cases like Cuba and leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, many Democrats view them with as much distaste as many Republicans.

But there are likely to be changes on specific issues such as immigration and trade, said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.

Free-trade agreements with Colombia and Peru now awaiting congressional approval will be in ''very serious trouble in a Democratic House,'' he said. But the House may want to take up a temporary-worker program as part of that broad immigration overhaul that President Bush has advocated, he added.

Both Republicans and Democrats voted to authorize the construction of a border fence, an initiative that infuriated Mexico and many Latin American countries. Bush signed the bill but prefers, along with many senators, a more comprehensive overhaul that includes more guest workers and a path for undocumented immigrants to legalize their status.

Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform say that some of the most vocal proponents of a crackdown on migrants lost their races, including Republican Reps. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and John Hostettler of Indiana, who is head of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims.

''The most vitriolic anti-immigration candidates went down in defeat,'' said Tamar Jacoby, with the conservative New York think tank Manhattan Institute.

FREE-TRADE DEALS

Democrats generally have opposed free-trade agreements as lacking safeguards for workers abroad. Peru is pushing to have its pact with the United States passed in the lame-duck session of the U.S. Congress that begins next week, while Colombia's pact is due for ratification next year.

However, many Democrats have said they want to extend two unilateral trade preference regimes that already allow many imports to enter the United States duty-free: the Generalized System of Preferences, which affects countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina, and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which impacts Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Democrats also favor a textile trade agreement with Haiti that Republicans from textile-producing states have blocked.

Democratic members of the black caucus have long pushed for better ties with the Caribbean region.

''If the change means a renewed focus on the Caribbean, we welcome it greatly, because for some time the Caribbean has been expressing disappointment in the state of the relationship,'' said Jamaican Foreign Affairs Minister Anthony Hylton.

On drug trafficking, the Bush administration is expected to present Congress soon with a new multiyear proposal to continue financing Plan Colombia, which ended last year and is being funded on a provisional basis.

The proposal will draw close scrutiny from Democrats on the House International Relations Committee, says Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who will chair the panel.

``Democrats and probably some Republicans on the committee would be eager to shift course in strategy, since coca cultivation levels are about at the same place they were five years ago and $4 billion ago.''

SHIFT IN FOCUS

One Republican Senate staff member, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said any change on Colombia will be a matter of focus: Democrats will center more on human rights and demobilization of guerrilla fighters, while Republicans are more concerned about drug trafficking.

Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco said she is confident that both Plan Colombia and the free-trade agreement will pass because her country has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. Plan Colombia was launched under the Clinton administration.

Tuesday's congressional elections also produced a mixed picture on Cuba. Several supporters of U.S. sanctions on Cuba lost. But Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and a defender of the embargo, won, while Rhode Island Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a critic of the embargo, lost.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Washington head of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, a group that lobbies to keep the embargo, says several of the losing House Republicans were critical of Bush's policy toward Havana.

''At the end of the day, when all this is said and done, we might come out just as strong,'' he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.