Latin countries avoided the gaze of the giant in last night’s presidential debate on foreign policy, while the focus was mainly on the Middle East and China. Perhaps its better that way, but throughout this campaign, surprisingly little has been said about Latinos and issues that disproportionately impact our lives.
The only substantive comment on Latin America was by Mitt Romney, who said we are not adequately taking advantage of opportunities there regarding trade. It was perhaps unfortunate that just before mentioning Latin America he discussed energy independence and capitalizing on coal, oil and gas, because it sounded disturbingly colonial.
However, the impact of our foreign policy on immigration was missed in the entire debate. From our sponsorship of anti-Communist regimes that imposed brutal tactics to seize power in Central America, and for which we continue to reap what we have sown in gangs and drug lords, to our heavy-handed support of American corporations bent on extracting natural resources, we continue to ignore the direct role our foreign policy has had on domestic problems.
Our war on drugs, which is essentially a jobs program that pays one group of people to put another group of people in a box, without making any positive change in the disease of drug addiction ravaging minority communities, has thrown Mexico into a most uncivil war against ruthless gangs determined to get rich off of American addiction.
The privileged status reserved for Cuban immigrants was also completely ignored. Cuban immigrants who manage to make it to American soil are given permanent residency status after one year. This is not to say that this policy is judiciously administered, since Cuban refugees are often prevented from reaching American soil by the Coast Guard, sometimes through direct force, but it has been a source of resentment among Latinos for decades.
If a Haitian refugee and Cuban refugee reach American shores at the same time, the Haitian goes through a deportation process, while the Cuban goes through a system designed to integrate him or her into the country. This is the same for Cubans who are detained at our southern border with Mexico, who have been coming in greater numbers recently. While Mexican migrants, who are largely economic refugees seeking opportunity, are deported, those who are Cuban are given a pathway to citizenship.
This immigration policy is directly related to foreign policy and is a throwback to the Cold War. With Fidel Castro as the last remnant of that era reaching “Weekend at Bernie’s” status, our asymmetric immigration policy is an important question for Latinos that has gone unaddressed for far too long.
Since the Monroe Doctrine, which declared any attempt by European countries to colonize South America as an act of aggression almost two hundred years ago, our collective national conscience has viewed Latin countries as an extension of domestic policy, but without the respect of co-equality. In essence, our perception of the people south of our border is that they are themselves both a resource and a burden.
The Anglo-centric history of our leadership and their sense of superiority has denied this country an opportunity to expand prosperity, not only across our continent but across South America, as a consequence. And it has directly impacted Latinos in America and abroad.
We see Mexico as an oversized Home Depot, where we drive by and pick up laborers as we need them, and then dump them into the real world without access to the mechanisms of prosperity once the work is done.
And when we run into tough economic times, these same people become a convenient villain for our politicians who depend on ignorance and racism to get elected.
It would have been nice to see our first minority president address these issues in his first term, or at least bring attention to these issues in our national dialogue, but perhaps it was too naïve to believe he could. There is simply too much social privilege in excluding others from economic growth, and too much opportunity in capitalizing on the resources of others, to think our President had any power to do so.
Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.