The US elections: a view from Latin America

It has been this year's most notable absentee: whatever happened to Latin America as a theme in the presidential campaign?

A great paradox in Tuesday’s United States elections is that of the growing significance of the Hispanic vote and the almost total absence of Latin America on the candidates’ agenda. The Hispanic vote is particularly important in swing states such as Florida and Nevada, although its presence is much wider—in California, Texas, Arizona, New York, New Mexico and Illinois, among other states.

Though the relationship between Hispanic voters and black candidates has been historically a complex one, Hispanics came through for Barack Obama in 2008, with 65% of their votes going to the candidate of “hope and change”. This time, polls indicate as much as 70% of them will vote for the incumbent president. This could make the difference between winning or losing in Nevada (where Obama is ahead, albeit by a small margin) and in Florida (which is essentially tied). In years to come, the state to watch is Texas. According to many observers, the growing Mexican-American population there, whose most visible up-and-coming leader is Julian Castro, the charismatic mayor of San Antonio, who delivered a rousing keynote at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte last August, will mean that some point in the near future the Hispanic vote will have Texas switch from a Republican to a Democratic majority state. With California and New York already in that camp, flipping Texas may mean relegating the Republican party to a permanent minority condition in the Electoral College, confined to the Deep South and the Rocky Mountain states.

In the third and final debate of the campaign held on 22 October in Boca Raton, Florida, Mali was mentioned more often than Latin America. In fact, President Obama didn’t mention the region at all.  It fell upon Mitt Romney to emphasize the significant business opportunities offered by the region; the United States sells more to Mexico than it does to China and several times more to Brazil than it does to Russia. "Latin Americanists" close to the Obama campaign have (oddly) found themselves scrambling to minimize the significance of these opportunities, as a way of covering the president’s flanks and his puzzling silence about the western hemisphere.

Romney, on the other hand, has been all over the place, going as far as accusing  Obama of being backed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, unashamedly pandering to the Cuban-American vote in Miami. In fact that may not be enough. The latest wild card in Florida is the Puerto Rican vote, which leans Democratic, and is not swayed by such antics. It is estimated there are now 800,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida, mostly in the Tampa-Orlando corridor, and they may soon outnumber the Cuban-Americans, currently at one million, in the Sunshine state. 

For now, it seems that US Hispanics are less worried about US policy towards their former homelands and more about their own working condition and opportunities. This means immigration reform, and ways of regularizing the estimated ten to twelve million undocumented Hispanics residing in the US The extremist, hard-line position of the Republican party, echoed by Mitt Romney and his recommendation of “self-deportation” as a solution, goes a long way towards explaining his dwindling support within this demographic group. Whatever his short-comings, George W. Bush, as a former Texas governor, had a much better grasp of this issue, as he championed immigration reform (and was rewarded with 40% of the Hispanic vote). Obama has not made any progress on immigration reform (admittedly, he has had his hands full with a few other issues), but his program, announced a few months ago, to help regularize the situation of the children of the “indocumentados” was an important step in the right direction.

In Latin America, meanwhile, people watch with a measure of detached amusement the fascinating spectacle provided by the US presidential campaign, which has raised the power of money in politics to a new level, as it breaks the billion-dollar spending ceiling. This detachment flows from the ever smaller significance of the United States for many countries in the region, especially in South America. For Brazil and Chile, two of the region’s most dynamic economies, China has displaced the United States as the main trading partner. For Argentina and Peru, China, already their #2 export market, will soon become the #1 export destination as well. This trend also relates to the region’s much stronger economic position. Over the past decade, an economic boom has meant higher incomes, a reduction in poverty, and a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of a mere 28%, in stark contrast to the $16 trillion dollar debt of the US economy.

That said, the presidential debates elicited considerable admiration in the region among the informed publics that follow these things. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the position of either candidate, the level of detail and sophistication with which both Obama and Romney dissected a variety of policy options was impressive. This is what deliberations and exchanges among aspiring leaders in a representative democracy are supposed to look like. The much more flexible format used this time, so different from the rather rigid and predictable ones often used in the equivalent presidential debates in Latin America, showed its advantages and should serve as a model for other countries as well.

On the other hand, the continued inability of the world’s oldest democracy to get its act together in terms of a reliable electoral system makes a mockery of Washington’s attempts to act as a champion of democracy in the rest of the world. Brazil, a continent-sized, 200-million population, federally organized country in some ways comparable to the United States, has managed to institute a uniform voting system throughout its 8 million square km territory whose integrity nobody questions. In the United States, on the other hand, twelve years after the 2000 (“hanging chads”) elections fiasco, that delivered the presidency to George W. Bush courtesy of a state run by his brother and Supreme Court justices appointed by his father, things, if anything, have gotten only worse. Systematic campaigns designed to exclude through legislation minority voters and young people from the polling booths in many states across the country have reached new heights in 2012. This cuts at the heart of the very notion of democratic elections as an expression of the popular will, and of elected leaders as representing the majority of the electorate.

This makes Latin Americans wonder whether it is time to set up a Latin American Democratic Institute that would send observers and consultants to Washington DC and the various state capitals around the United States to advise on how to run elections properly.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

About the author

Jorge Heine is CIGI Professor of Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Innovation, in Waterloo, Ontario. His book Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, with Andrew Cooper, is published by United Nations University Press.