Jorge G. Castañeda
A ‘Cinnamon-Skinned’ President
To much of the world, Obama is not black but dark-skinned, like anyone of the poorer two thirds of the planet.
By Jorge G. Castañeda | NEWSWEEK
Jan 21, 2008 Issue | Updated: 11:21 a.m. ET Jan 12, 2008
The news about Hillary Clinton's collapse in the U.S. Democratic Party primaries was premature, to put it mildly. And Barack Obama's apparent coronation will also have to wait a while, a few weeks or even a few years. But the Illinois senator's impressive showing in the Iowa caucuses, in the New Hampshire primary and, perhaps more important, in his two national television speeches after the results came in, have started to force people to examine the implications, both within the United States and abroad, of an Obama White House. Speculation is rife everywhere about what his victory would mean—and rightly so.
The first question is whether his presidency would augur any significant change in policy with a meaningful impact abroad. The answer is probably not. On both domestic and foreign policy, the Democratic candidates' stances are largely similar. Any Democratic president will try to extricate the United States from the mess in Iraq, yet all would face rigid constraints, and perhaps more important, Obama's foreign-policy advisers (such as Anthony Lake) and Clinton's (Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke) and their common friends (Bill Richardson), all spring from the same stem: the Bill Clinton administration.
Yet there is still an enormous amount of excitement abroad about the prospect of an Obama victory. Why? Symbolism plays a big role. While a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean that for the first time a woman would hold the world's "macho" job par excellence, an Obama presidency would go much further. For starters, as many analysts have argued, his background is enormously appealing to the rest of the world. His father was Kenyan, not American. He was brought up partly in Indonesia. He is familiar with the Muslim religion and culture, and would probably understand the world better than others because he has spent time outside the continental United States since the day he was born.
But the main difference an Obama presidency would make is his race, which today trumps gender in most of the world, as far as symbolism goes. For the first time, the United States would have a chief of state who looks like what most of the earth's inhabitants believe they look like. By American standards, Obama is black; through the prism of the peoples of what used to be known as the Third World, he is simply dark-skinned. He looks like one of the billions of dwellers of the poorer two thirds of the planet. For the first time, the leader of the "others" would look like "us." For the first time, the first impression would be a lasting one: at a time of enormous U.S. unpopularity in the world, essentially because of George W. Bush in Iraq, the leader of the "bad guys" would look like the "good guys."
This might turn out be particularly relevant for Latin America, a region where Bush and the United States are more unpopular today than at any time since the '50s, and where, paradoxically, Bush has mainly committed only acts of omission, largely ignoring the hemisphere. He is, remarkably, the first U.S. president since Carter not to have intervened militarily in the region, for better or for worse: remember Ronald Reagan and the contras (for worse), George H.W. Bush in Panama (for worse) and Clinton in Haiti (for better). If anything, Bush has done nothing south of the Rio Grande, except disappoint his friends, give ammunition to his foes and pander to his right wing by giving lip service to the idea of building a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet polls systematically show that for reasons that are ethereal and intangible, American prestige and likability in the region are lower than since times that most have forgotten.
Obama would change attitudes toward the United States, even if policy itself did not change dramatically. Latin America is neither populated by indigenous peoples, nor Spanish, Italian or Portuguese immigrants; it is neither black nor red. Instead, it is, as the classic Bobby Capo and Los Panchos 1950s bolero says, "cinnamon-skinned"—just like Obama. For many Latin Americans, an Obama presidency would recall a memory of another American president, warmly welcomed in Mexico City, in June 1962. That man had already engaged the United States in the Vietnam War. And in the months to come, he would hold the then young and endearing Cuban revolution hostage to cold-war rivalry. Yet he was acclaimed in the streets of the Mexican capital by more than a million people, most of them sincerely inspired.
Though there have been countless explanations for John F. Kennedy's triumphant reception in Mexico that summer, all of them valid, I prefer to retain one: this was the first American president who believed in the same God most Mexicans do: in Mexican terms, the goliath of the North was now ... Roman Catholic, just like Mexicans. In the land of the "brown" Virgin of Guadalupe, the spiritual guide and emblematic figure for millions of Mexicans since the 16th century, that was no minor matter. Nor would it be to have a U.S. president who "looks" a lot like her.
Castañeda is Mexico’s former foreign minister and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.
© 2008 Newsweek, Inc.