Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What’s at Stake for Latinos (and Latin America) in the U.S. Presidential Vote?

Julián Castro, who formerly served as U.S. secretary of housing and urban development and mayor of San Antonio, last week ended his campaign for president. // File Photo: Facebook page of Julián Castro.

Julián Castro, the only Latino running in this year’s U.S. presidential election, on Jan. 2 ended his campaign. He was the first among Democratic candidates to roll out an immigration plan and led the other candidates to support his call to make illegal border crossings a civil violation instead of a criminal misdemeanor, NBC News reported. Castro’s first campaign stop was Puerto Rico, instead of Iowa or New Hampshire, two of the traditional early-voting states. With less than 10 months until election day, how is the U.S. presidential race shaping up? What issues or proposals from candidates are emerging as most relevant for Latin America and the Caribbean? What role are Latinos playing in the 2020 election’s outcome?

Lino Gutierrez, CEO of Gutierrez Global, LLC and former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and Argentina: “Latino voters are poised to play a key role in the November presidential election. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017 there were more than 60 million Latinos in the United States, accounting for 18 percent of the population. A record 32 million Latino voters will be eligible to vote in November. A recent Mason-Dixon/Telemundo poll found that 25 percent of Latino voters would vote to re-elect President Trump and 64 percent to replace him, with the rest undecided. Among the Democratic candidates, former Vice President Biden led with 26 percent of the vote, followed by Bernie Sanders with 18 percent and Elizabeth Warren at 11 percent. In general, most Latino voters lean Democratic with the possible exception of Florida, where Latinos with Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan roots have often voted for Republican candidates. Recognizing the growing impact of Latino voters, at a recent political rally in New Mexico, President Trump made a direct appeal to Latinos, taking credit for the rising Latino median income and lower poverty rates, adding ‘We love our Hispanics.’ Democrats will hammer away at the president’s quest for a border wall, the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border, and the president’s earlier characterization of Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists.’ Latino voter turnout has been on an upward trend, and it could prove decisive this year in some key battleground states such as Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina.”

Mark Feierstein, senior advisor at Albright Stonebridge Group: “As the Democratic presidential field has narrowed, former Vice President Joe Biden remains the frontrunner for the nomination and, polls suggest, would be the strongest candidate against Donald Trump. Domestic issues have been paramount in the campaign, though the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the retaliatory missile strikes by Iran will, at least for some time, elevate foreign policy and provide an opportunity for the candidates to draw contrasts with each other and with Trump. With regard to Latin America and the Caribbean, all the candidates have pledged to take a dramatically different approach than Trump toward the region. Most important, they recognize the opportunities the region presents economically and diplomatically and understand there is more to the Americas than a defiant troika. The candidates reject Trump’s draconian immigration policies and support greater assistance to Central America to address the root causes of illegal migration; back lifting restrictions on U.S. travel to and economic engagement with Cuba imposed by Trump which have harmed private sector entrepreneurs on the island; prefer a negotiated settlement in Venezuela to end the Maduro dictatorship; support re-engaging with the region to combat climate change; advocate for democracy and human rights on a non-ideological basis; and understand that tariffs are a blunt tool that can harm American consumers and businesses. Latinos will play a particularly important role in the selection of the Democratic nominee in the early caucus state of Nevada on Feb. 22, in California and Texas on ‘Super Tuesday’ on March 3, and March 17 in Florida in Arizona.”

Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group: “A key to reaching Latino voters, the largest minority group in the U.S. electorate, is to understand that they are not a monolith. Some issues, like access to health are, are top-of-mind for most Latinos. But candidates must also show concern for issues that matter to individual Latino subgroups. Blanket messaging them on immigration or addressing all as Latinx (those who self-identify as such poll in the low single digits) won’t cut it. Nor will too much talk of fighting inequality and Washington corruption connect with those Latinos who not long-ago left countries with scant rule of law for a superior North American job market. However, solutions to reduce costs of living will resonate. So will awareness on developments in specific countries across the Americas. Not all Latino voters retain strong ties with their former homelands, but many do, and for them it is important to know that a U.S. presidential candidate is looking after the interests of their people as well. Trump has largely ignored the challenges facing Latin America and the Caribbean unless they directly animate segments of his base. His harsh border policies sway nativist supporters while his ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Venezuela and Cuba has been more effective at rallying voters in South Florida than helping Venezuela’s Guaidó-led opposition reclaim democracy. All Democratic frontrunners have committed to addressing the root causes of the Central American migration crisis, from corruption and women’s rights to climate change. Prospects for a mutually beneficial relationship with the Americas are only likely to improve under a more conscientious U.S. administration with different priorities.”

John Zogby, founder of the Zogby Poll and senior partner at John Zogby Strategies: “Contrary to the old proverb, good fences do not make good neighbors. And bad fences are even worse for building good relations. The Americas—North, South, and Central—are steeped in turmoil these days. Even worse, we are not getting along very well. The current administration’s immigration policy—featuring a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, separation of families, incarceration of young children and threats of mass deportation—has worsened relationships not only with Mexico but with all of Latin America. As the current U.S. administration boasts of a resurgent America, there appears to be no room for any of its neighbors. The major Democratic candidates are certainly preoccupied with a myriad of other domestic and foreign issues, but all agree on the need for immigration reform, legislating the Obama administration executive order of offering a path to citizenship for Dreamers, on ending talk of the wall and restoring the image of the United States as a welcoming nation. But there are disagreements as well. Among the major candidates, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg favor restoration of free trade within the region. They do not believe the Trump administration’s new trade pact goes far enough in defining workers’ rights and environmental protections, but they do not oppose it outright as does Senator Bernie Sanders. The Trump administration has done everything possible to undo efforts by President Obama at rapprochement with Cuba. And the hostility between the United States and its neighbors has led to significant inroads into the region by China. Mr. Biden offers a $750 million fund for education and development for Central America to assist in improve the economy, to establish hope and better relations, and attempt to limit demand for entering the United States. Across Latin America, a global youth movement is rebelling against corruption and income inequality. Unfortunately, Washington is not immune from this turmoil either. The next president—who as of now may very well be Mr. Trump again—will have to deal with a neighborhood that is troubled and dynamic.”

Danny Turkel, communications manager at Voto Latino: “For the first time in United States history, the Latinx community will be the second-largest voting bloc in the American electorate. However, the remaining choices presented to us for president do not reflect our community, nor have they demonstrated a holistic understanding of the issues Latinx people face on a daily basis. They have only addressed us in regard to Latin American policy and immigration, othering and painting us—approximately 70 percent of whom were born in this country—as first-generation immigrants. The candidates must learn to speak ‘our English,’ instead of attempting to address us in broken Spanish. Despite the various deficiencies demonstrated by every candidate, Voto Latino is committed to educating, encouraging and empowering all eligible Latinx Americans to register to vote, register their friends, family and neighbors to vote and then show up on Election Day. We understand that no candidate will be able to fully address and correct the problems we face in our communities, but we can elect a president who does not actively denigrate and demonize us. We will push our community to elect a president who recognizes our place in the United States of America, without question; who acknowledges our contributions and seeks our counsel. The Latinx community will no longer be taken for granted and with our voice and our vote, we will assert our place in the halls of American power for generations to come.”

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