Conflict & Justice

Why American Presidents Discount Latin America

Mitt Romney was speaking with elected Latino officials this week in Florida.

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One item the Republican presidential candidate hasn't discussed much is his foreign policy platform toward Latin America.

For that matter, neither has President Obama.

American leaders, from the US president on down, often don't often say much about our policies toward Latin America.

The World's Jason Margolis explains why.

Susan Kaufman Purcell directs the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. She has a lot to say about Latin America. But she doesn't have much to say about President Obama's foreign policy positions toward Latin America.

Kaufman Purcell: "Everyone that I talk to, including my Latin American friends and acquaintances, they say what do you think the Obama policy is toward Latin America is? They don't' know."

Kaufman Purcell, herself, is somewhat stumped because she doesn't have a lot to go on.

Kaufman Purcell: "Look the fact is that since 9-11, the attention of the United States has been overwhelmingly on the Middle East and on the on the fight against terrorism."

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, says the current policy toward Latin America is one of "benign neglect."

Jones: "This though has been an ongoing issue with all American presidents going back perhaps to Ronald Reagan who was the last US president to have a real focus on Latin America, and for many Latin Americans, they would see that as something of a negative."

Many argue that President Reagan's Central American policies directly and indirectly led to much bloodshed in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Since then, there have been some trade agreements and support for the fight against drug trafficking. But US presidents have mostly tried not to interfere in Latin America.

That's had some negative effects in the region, according to Maurcio Claver-Carone, director of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington. He points to one example… a 2003 round-up of journalists and human rights activists in Cuba.

Claver-Carone: "That occurred, that wave of arrests began the day that the the US invasion of Iraq began. And why did the Castro regime do that? Because he knew that the media and the international attention would be focused on Iraq."

Claver-Carone says Latin America deserves more attention than that.

Claver-Carone: "I think we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time."

Mitt Romney talks about doing just that. . Here he is a few months ago in Miami.

Romney: "How is it that the whole world, south of our border, which is growing and dynamic, receives so little attention from the United States of America. If I'm president, that will change, not just for their benefit, but for ours."

He's offered few details on what he means by this though. Romney has also had some tough talk aimed at the Castro brothers in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Manuel Corao, doesn't buy into speeches like this, from politicians of either party. Corao is a news radio host who moved from Venezuela to Miami in 1996. He sees no differences between recent Republican and Democratic presidential administrations in their stances toward Latin America and Venezuela.

Corao: "They talk, talk, but they don't do nothing."

Still, Corao isn't all that bothered that American politicians aren't more engaged with his native country. It's not his top priority as an American voter.

Same goes for most Latino voters I've spoken with over the past few months.

When I've asked them what their top issues are… virtually everybody says the same thing.

Ackerman: "Number one, employment."

Romero: "The economy is perhaps number one."

Duarte: "All across the country Latinos are focused on the exact same issues as everybody else, and that is jobs."

That was Ernesto Ackerman in Miami, Fernando Romero in Las Vegas, and Carlos Duarte in Houston.

People also tend to mention healthcare, education, and immigration reform. But nobody, and I mean nobody, brings up foreign policy. The only exceptions being Cuban Americans in Miami.

Overall, though, this apathy among Hispanic Americans also gives American politicians license to continue their benign neglect of Latin America.

That could easily change though, if say, Hugo Chavez loses his battle with cancer. Susan Kaufman Purcell says Chavez' health is on the minds of American policymakers.

Kaufman Purcell: "Because instead of thinking, 'Oh my God, we're stuck with this guy forever, we mind as well adapt.' Now they're thinking maybe he's not here forever."

Same goes for the Castro brothers in Cuba. Fidel's health is a mystery. And Raul is 81-years-old.

A changing of the guard in Cuba or Venezuela would almost certainly move Latin America up a few pegs on the US foreign policy agenda.