One can be forgiven for assuming that a primary election in Florida -- a state with a huge Latino population, often touted as the gateway to Latin America -- would offer the best time and place to have a serious debate about how the United States should deal with its closest neighbors, its proverbial "backyard." But that would be ignoring past experience and today's political realities.
Indeed, when it comes to Latin American policy it is generally wise to keep expectations in check. The Republican candidates have eschewed the tough questions and preferred to fantasize about space centers rather than take a hard look at the countries nearest to Miami's shores. To the extent Latin America was treated at all, the discussion has been dominated by phantom threats and tired bromides.
There is, of course, a real threat ravaging a number of countries close to Florida -- and whose citizens make up a substantial share of the growing Latino population in the United States. Drug-fueled criminal violence has, according to official statistics, claimed close to 48,000 Mexican lives since 2006, when Felipe Calderón came to office. Mexico, which is holding elections in five months is, as George W. Bush once rightly said, the United States' "most important bilateral relationship."
What happens in Mexico is fundamental to U.S. interests. Yet not a serious word was uttered among the candidates about whether the current U.S. policy, reflected in an aid package known as the Merida Initiative, adequately addresses the problem -- or whether different approaches or ideas to the drug war should be considered.
The situation in the "northern triangle" countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is even more alarming. Central American governments are overwhelmed and outmatched, unable to cope with a growing crime wave. A recent report in the Miami Herald about Honduras was particularly chilling. Honduras now has the world's highest homicide rate (82.1 per 100,000 residents). Nearly 7,000 homicides were recorded in 2011, a 250 percent increase in half a dozen years. Organized crime pervades the country's police forces.
How should the United States respond to such rampant lawlessness? Clearly the current Honduran government is overwhelmed and doesn't have sufficient resources or capacity. To be sure, in the Florida debate Rick Santorum was critical of Barack Obama's mistakes in responding to the June 2009 political crisis. But how should the president deal with today's reality? And how does this grave situation compare with other foreign-policy priorities? Plausible scenarios are dire, but the United States has a fundamental interest in safeguarding fragile democracies in a neighboring region. (Obama also avoided this issue in his recent State of the Union address.)
Drug policy is a key dimension of the current crisis. Drugs -- in Central America, chiefly cocaine -- fuel much of the violence, yet are apparently an issue unworthy of discussion in a U.S. presidential race (with the exception of Ron Paul, who has no chance of being nominated). True, the inflated rhetoric associated with the "war on drugs" has notably abated. U.S. politicians no longer say, as George H. W. Bush did in 1989, that anti-drug efforts "will require the bravery and sacrifice that Americans have shown before and must again." But policies persist that, despite an investment of billions of dollars over the last four decades, have yielded few positive results. Much to the chagrin of most Latin Americans, there is no appetite in Washington to entertain alternative approaches.
A serious debate on the drug war would feature the candidates' responses to the recommendations made in a 2009 commission report headed by three respected Latin American ex-presidents -- Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and César Gaviria of Colombia. The report underlines the risks posed by the growing drug problem to democracy in the region, calls for a wide-ranging policy review, and urges specific measures, such as the legalization of marijuana. Colombia's current president, Juan Manuel Santos, has also reiterated appeals for a global debate on drug policy, beginning with consumer countries such the United States. Far more Latin Americans have died in the ill-conceived drug war over the years than during the Arab uprisings. But few in Washington appear to care about the former.
The Republican candidates did, of course, talk about immigration, another major concern of most Latin Americans. But the debate was far from edifying, and there was no sense that for Latin Americans immigration is also a foreign-policy issue. Building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, is seen as an affront to Latin Americans, and makes cooperation on other issues more problematic (of course, Democrats also view immigration as an entirely domestic issue). It will be difficult to build more constructive and deeper relationships with many countries in the region unless the broken U.S. immigration system -- reflected in millions of productive and hard-working Latinos living in fear of deportation -- is fixed.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rightly linked immigration reform to the country's economic well-being, and in a number of interviews former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stressed that comprehensive reform is essential. "Some of the harsher things said about immigration are both shortsighted and, ultimately, in the long-term, will undo one of the great strengths of the United States," she said recently. Are any of the Republican candidates listening?