Why Obama is courting his troublesome neighbours

In a world of shifting power balances, the president is wise to re-engage Latin America.

Barack Obama brings to a close today what for him has been a troubled, and troubling, five-day tour of Latin America.

Before he began his trip in Brazil on Saturday, Hillary Clinton had talked up the visit as heralding "a new era" in US-South American relations. Events in Libya have largely focused the world's attention since then. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of this trip for US-Latin American relations. In that sense, Clinton may well be proved to be right – if not quite in the way she imagined.

Because, for all diplomacy-friendly images of Obama playing soccer with kids in a Rio slum, or the first lady dazzling the Chileans with her fashion sense, the picture this trip has revealed above all is that the US is in a weaker position with respect to the continent than it has been for years. Whisper it quietly, but there seems even to be a sense of concern within the Obama camp that the US might have dropped the ball in what it has long thought of as its own backyard.

Just last year, 32 Latin America and Caribbean countries formed a new regional organisation, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CLAC), with just the United States and Canada excluded. The year before that, China overtook the US as Brazil's major trading partner. It has been offloading investment ever since.

Were it not for the sheer weight of Brazil's growing stature and the extent of economic interest by China, the US would doubtless have been only too happy to jog along for some years to come in the cold war redux mode Obama began with. It was certainly ambivalent at best during the coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.

But 2009 is beginning to feel like a long time ago now. Since then, Brazil under Lula has spoken out in support of Iran. And even as the Obama roadshow got under way, Dilma Rousseff had Brazil abstain in voting on the UN Security Council resolution on the situation in Libya. If this doesn't make clear the challenge that Brazil poses to US political clout in the region, Rousseff's trip to China next month almost certainly will.

Hence the distinctly audible change in Washington's tune, as articulated by the White House adviser Ben Rhodes. It is "imperative", he says, "that the United States not disengage from these regions". To which Obama's senior Latin American adviser, Dan Restrepo, added that what is at stake during this trip is "the restoration of American influence and appeal" in the region.

Only connect

You wouldn't have heard that a few years ago, but global political and economic circumstances are changing fast. And in US geostrategy, "engagement" is the new defensive play of choice. The cold war was all about containing and distancing threats, either militarily or economically. Today it is all about insisting on reconnection – and Latin America looms large here.

Which is why this trip has gone ahead even though Obama was forced to juggle dinner with Chile's president, Sebastián Piñera, alongside updates from national security advisers on the situation in Libya.

A still-fractious recovery from financial crisis and high unemployment rates make it almost essential the US expand trade southwards. And Obama knows only too well that Latin America stands to play an important role in American moves towards energy security, too. Engaging in both these arenas will also be seen domestically as a way to get some of America's 14 million officially unemployed back to work.

But engaging in this way will mean eating more humble pie than Republicans, at least, are likely to want to digest. Above all it will mean some measure of support by America for Brazil's gaining a permanent seat on the Security Council – the major challenge here being whether it now makes sense to try to hasten that process, cultivating Brazil in order to later use it as a foil against the other Brics, which also abstained during the Libya vote.

So, too, will it mean listening to the voices of ordinary South Americans, rather than reading their needs through the polarised right-left rhetoric that clogs up most debate on the continent. Judging by Obama's willingness throughout the trip so far to extol the virtues of Latin American democracies as an example of what Arab nations in the Middle East might aim for, there seems to be at least some willingness here to budge a little from positions of the past.

Just beware America's interpretation of what a good functioning democracy actually means in the Latin American context. That may be one thing that is slower to change.

Either way, we now have a better sense of where Obama's current thinking on Latin America is heading. And the answer is that he is looking at it through the prism of 2012.

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Sadiq Khan is probably London's new mayor - what will happen in a Tooting by-election?

There will be a by-election in the new mayor's south London seat.

At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan appears to have a fairly comfortable lead over Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election. Which means (at least) two (quite) interesting things are likely to happen: 1) Sadiq Khan is going to be mayor, and 2) there is going to be a by-election in Tooting.

Unlike the two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield that Labour won at a canter last night, the south London seat of Tooting is a genuine marginal. The Conservatives have had designs on the seat since at least 2010, when the infamous ‘Tatler Tory’, Mark Clarke, was the party’s candidate. Last May, Khan narrowly increased his majority over the Tories, winning by almost 3,000 votes with a majority of 5.3 per cent. With high house prices pushing London professionals further out towards the suburbs, the seat is gentrifying, making Conservatives more positive about the prospect of taking the seat off Labour. No government has won a by-election from an opposition party since the Conservative Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden from a Labour-SDP defector in June 1982. In a nice parallel, that seat borders Tooting.

Of course, the notion of a Tooting by-election will not come as a shock to local Conservatives, however much hope they invested in a Goldsmith mayoral victory. Unusually, the party’s candidate from the general election, Dan Watkins, an entrepreneur who has lived in the area for 15 years, has continued to campaign in the seat since his defeat, styling himself as the party’s “parliamentary spokesman for Tooting”. It would be a big surprise if Watkins is not re-anointed as the candidate for the by-election.

What of the Labour side? For some months, those on the party’s centre-left have worried with varying degrees of sincerity that Ken Livingstone may see the by-election as a route back into Parliament. Having spent the past two weeks muttering conspiratorially about the relationship between early 20th-Century German Jews and Adolf Hitler before having his Labour membership suspended, that possibility no longer exists.

Other names talked about include: Rex Osborn, leader of the Labour group on Wandsworth Council; Simon Hogg, who is Osborn’s deputy; Rosena Allin-Khan, an emergency medicine doctor who also deputises for Osborn; Will Martindale, who was Labour’s defeated candidate in Battersea last year; and Jayne Lim, who was shortlisted earlier in the year for the Sheffield Brightside selection and used to practise as a doctor at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

One thing that any new Labour MP would have to contend with is the boundary review reporting in 2018, which will reduce the number of London constituencies by 5. This means that a new Tooting MP could quickly find themselves pitched in a selection fight for a new constituency with their neighbours Siobhan McDonagh, who currently holds Mitcham and Morden, and/or Chuka Umunna, who is the MP for Streatham. 

According to the Sunday Times, Labour is planning to hold the by-election as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the EU referendum on June 23rd.

It's also worth noting that, as my colleague Anoosh Chakelian reported in March, George Galloway plans to stand as well.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.