While Latin America rarely appears to factor among campaign priorities, this year’s midterm elections are beginning to show why that’s changing, and why politicians need to start paying attention.
The influx of undocumented minors across our southern border, Panama’s invitation to Cuba to attend the upcoming Summit of the Americas and Venezuela’s transformation into a narco-state are Latin American issues that affect the United States from both a policy perspective and an electoral one.
Issues of global scale — the threat of the Islamic State, the Russia-Ukraine conflict — will still dominate media coverage and campaign talking points. But despite its frequent absence from media and campaign coverage, Latin America should be a U.S. foreign policy priority.
Latin America is uniquely relevant to U.S. interests, given its proximity, its importance to U.S. prosperity and security and this country’s rapidly changing demographic make-up. In other words, what matters in Latin America, matters in the United States.
The U.S.-Mexico border is nearly 2,000 miles long, flying to Venezuela takes 3.5 hours and Cuba is 90 miles from Florida. Insecurity and violence in Central America inevitably reverberate northward — as with the influx of unaccompanied children.
The United States took in $180 billion in imports from and sent $160 billion in exports to Latin America in 2013. Forty percent of goods labeled “Made in Mexico” contain components manufactured in the United States, while natural resource development in Mexico improves U.S. energy security.
The majority of U.S. foreign policy funding for the region is in cooperative counter-narcotic frameworks like the Merida Initiative, as drug trafficking is inextricably connected to our own security. Political and economic instability in Venezuela or repression in Cuba add tension to the U.S. government’s dealings in the region — and impact domestic politics.
Demographic trends tell that story: 2.4 million immigrants from around the world have entered the United States since 2007 — half from Latin America. In the 2013 Census, 17 percent of Americans — nearly one-fifth of the country — self-identified as Latino.
And Latinos in the United States play a unique role. As a demographic group, they are growing fast, increasingly relevant in key electoral districts and an important constituency for those running for office.
But why does this matter now?
In contrast to many other groups, Latino Americans often care about policy issues here that have an impact in their countries of origin. They stay informed, they care and they vote.
The majority of Hispanics live in states with sizable Latino communities: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Five of these have contested midterm elections in which Hispanic voters can make a difference — and all nine will be key in 2016’s presidential election.
As a result, there are a series of “intermestic” policies — that is, they are relevant to both foreign policy and domestic politics. Immigration, in particular, tends to galvanize U.S. Latinos, who are 25 percent more likely to support reform than the general populace. Over three-quarters of Hispanics factor immigration into their voting, labeling it “extremely” or “very important” to their electoral choices. Hispanics registered as independents overwhelmingly support reform — and these voters are often responsible for shifts in election years.
In 2012, for example, Democrats enjoyed just under 55 percent of Hispanic support, but President Obama pulled off nearly three-quarters of the national Latino vote.
U.S. policy toward Cuba has traditionally been disproportionately relevant in electoral politics. Cuban Americans have favored the GOP and a hardline policy, but polling trends show the gap narrowing, and many favor a new approach. The advantage George W. Bush enjoyed when he earned nearly 80 percent of that vote may be up for grabs for politicians paying attention.
President Obama delayed executive action on immigration, having an impact on Colorado’s Senate race — where Latinos make up 14 percent of the electorate. And in states with fewer Latinos like North Carolina, the Latino vote could swing races whose polling remains within the margin of error.
This is a reality that legislators and candidates simply cannot ignore.
The impact of these issues will only increase as the Hispanic population increases, and some candidates have already begun to adapt. The question is: Who will be ahead of the curve?
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Luis Miranda is a former communications adviser to President Obama and founder of MDC Strategies.