Latin America: The missing region in the U.S. elections?


It has become commonplace to say that Latin America was absent from the 2012 election campaign in the United States. It is understandable, because the region was mentioned only once in the candidates’ foreign policy debate (by Governor Romney, when he referred to the potential of free trade agreements in the hemisphere), and it got almost no attention in campaign speeches. However, as with much conventional wisdom, the devil is in the definitions. If Latin America’s impact on U.S. politics is viewed in terms of relations between governments, the statement is correct; if, on the other hand, the concept includes the public, then the region was present like never before in the elections.

It is time to think about Latin American policy within a broader framework than old-fashioned nationalism. The political borders of transnational societies in the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere have little to do with their legal boundaries. Latin America and the United States do not start or end with the Rio Grande or the Caribbean Sea. With their many, non-exclusive identities, Latin American and Caribbean Diasporas are increasingly important in the U.S. and in their home countries. The rigid cultural/linguistic/religious divide between indigenous/Hispanic/Catholic “Latin America” and “Anglo-Saxon/Protestant/white” United States needs to be revised.

It is symptomatic that the solutions to the most important and symbolic problems of U.S. relations with Latin America (free trade, energy cooperation with Brazil, immigration, security against organized crime, and Cuba) have been dependent on the balance of power in American domestic politics. In so far as the vote of important U.S. Latino groups changed those political correlations, Latin America’s participation in the U.S. elections was extremely important. The new situation could have a major impact on U.S. policy toward the region.

By casting 71% of their votes for the president, few electoral blocks can claim more credit for Barack Obama’s re-election than Latinos. This is the highest number of ballots Latinos have cast for a Democratic candidate since 1996 when Bill Clinton got 72%.  Had Romney  won 35% of the Hispanic vote like George W. Bush did, he probably would be the president-elect today. Even more painful for the Republicans, Latinos are now 10 % of the electorate and rising.

But, the Republicans’ problem with the Latino electorate is not just demographics; it is also ideology. Several Republican leaders made offensive statements about the immigration issue. For the rest of his life, Romney will regret his strident support of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070; his promise to veto the Dream Act, and his “self-deportation” proposal for undocumented immigrants. While Latino voters have multiple concerns—often very similar to those of the average voter—their sensitivity to the immigration issue is unique. They have common connections and histories with the immigrant population and the native countries of their social group. The discriminatory statements of conservative politicians against minorities, especially Hispanics, created a moral pressure within them to vote.

MSNBC’s Steve Schmidt, who was director of Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, summed up the 2012 message for the Republican Party: if it does not change its attitude toward the country’s new demographic reality, in which the Latino minority is supremely important in a growing number of key states on the electoral map—such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada—“it may be left wandering in the dark for a generation.”

Immigration reform is now at the top of the national political agenda. The Democrats cannot take the Latino vote for granted. Before this past summer, when the president signed the executive order authorizing temporary residence for more than one million young immigrants, Obama’s approval rating among Latinos had fallen significantly to below 50 percent.

If Romney and Paul Ryan’s movement toward the center after the first presidential debate is a prelude to a Republican repositioning after the 2012 elections, then the possibility of immigration reform getting passed in Congress is greater. The popularity of a re-elected president (53 percent for Obama today) tends to increase in the first year of the second term, providing Obama with more political capital. The discussion of immigration reform would occur in the context of modest Democratic gains in both houses of Congress, and a Republican Party that has been criticized for obstructionism, bias, and a lack of willingness to compromise.

Few political acts would have a greater effect on U.S.-Latin American relations than the naturalization of millions of Hispanics over the next decade. It is no coincidence that President Obama announced that immigration reform would be a legislative priority in his second term during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. It is not only a domestic but a foreign policy promise. The countries that have the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the United States are the same ones that have free trade agreements and a greater level of alliances with the U.S.: Mexico, Central America and Colombia. These are also the countries with the greatest need for a coordinated effort against organized crime and drug and arms trafficking.

Establishing a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants would make border control more manageable, and it would also lead to greater demand for legal immigration of families and circular movement between the United States and immigrants’ countries of origin. Comprehensive U.S. immigration reform would have a very significant positive impact on tourism, remittances, investment and the voting preferences of expatriates from those countries.

More maneuverability in policy toward Cuba

Another example of how changes in U.S. Latino groups can change the context of policy making occurred in Cuban-American Miami.  For years, they voted Republican for president and sent to Congress pro-embargo legislators, like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, who oppose Cuban-American travel to the island, and Senator Marco Rubio, who has filibustered presidential nominations in retaliation for alleged “abuse” of people-to-people travel. 

But, Obama won a record share of the Cuban-American vote (47percent to Romney’s 48 percent), which is evidence that a block has emerged consisting of voters of Cuban descent born here along with others who are recent immigrants.  This block rejects McCarthyist propaganda by the pro-embargo right-wing forces, and enabled the president to campaign for reelection in support of his liberalized policies.

For the first time, the election resulted in victories for candidates favorable to greater contact between the Cuban-American community and the island. In their race for the U.S. House, Joe García defeated Rep. David Rivera, one of the most fervent supporters of the policies of isolation. The evolution of García, a former director of the Cuban American National Foundation who now supports Cuban-American travel to Cuba and the presence of Cuban artists in Miami, is evidence of the moderation of a major component of the Cuban-American elite.

The same tendency was seen in the election to the Florida state legislature of José Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat who supports exchange between the Cuban-American community and the island. Garcia will enter the House just as Rep. Ros-Lehtinen leaves the chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in line with the Republican caucus’s term limits.

Outside of Florida, the elections had ambiguous results with respect to the Cuba issue. In Texas, voters elected a third pro-embargo Cuban-American to the U.S. Senate, Ted Cruz, where he will join Rubio and New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez.  On the Cuba issue, however, his victory is balanced, to a good extent, by that of Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who has been the most consistent anti-embargo voice in the U.S. House in the past decade.

Anti-embargo groups can only be encouraged by the outcome of the elections and the guarantee that the virtuous cycle represented by increased travel and the creation of communities who are interested in that can continue for four more years. The messages that have been sent out from a more plural Miami, combined with greater flexibility in Obama’s second term, gave him more maneuvering room for rational treatment of the Cuba issue.

Cuba, as the rest of Latin America, was not absent from the election; it was put into play by the voters.