The Candidates and Latin America: Policy in our "Backyard

The Candidates and Latin America: Policy in our "Backyard

Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, questions on candidates’ foreign policy positions have mainly focused on the Middle East, with tough debates surrounding ISIS, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second and third in line for candidates’ foreign policy concerns seem to be the growing economic influence of China and Russia’s political aggression. Although hailed as the United States’ “back yard,” Latin America is merely a blip on the foreign policy radar this election season. However, three issues regarding Latin America have been widely discussed by most (if not all) campaigns: Immigration reform, normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, and NAFTA. The candidates’ stances on the issues vary, not only between political parties but within them as well.  



With an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S., immigration is no small issue. The two parties are vehemently divided on the issue of immigration reform. Democrats often promote a “pathway to citizenship,” while Republicans tend to favor securitization of the (southern) border.

As the son of a migrant from Poland, Bernie Sanders proposes an immigration policy that emphasizes justice and human rights to keep families together and protect workers from exploitation. He plans to build on the Obama Administration’s immigration reforms by expanding the DACA and DAPA programs. Sanders will not wait for Congress to act, instead he has said he will take executive action within the first 100 days of his administration. Sanders specifically addresses the flow of unaccompanied child migrants, primarily from the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. While it reached a peak in 2014, the U.S. is still dealing with the repercussions of the massive influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children. Sanders condemns the deportation of these children, amid reports that children who are returned to their home countries are being killed by the same gang-incited violence they fled.

Hillary Clinton also supports comprehensive immigration reform. Her proposed immigration plan includes creating a pathway to citizenship, closing family and private detention centers, and upholding President Obama’s previous executive orders on immigration reform. Clinton also plans to provide deportation relief for DREAMers, DAPA candidates, and to “extend those actions to additional persons with sympathetic cases.” As a senator, she cosponsored the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Although Clinton mainly addresses the legal aspects of immigration reform, she also emphasizes that immigration is a “family issue” and wants to work to keep law-abiding immigrant families together.  

The current GOP front-runner, Donald Trump, proposes the radical and improbable solution of building a wall to seal the border with Mexico. Trump also plans to make Mexico pay for it, by refusing to process remittances from relatives and friends in the U.S. Trump states, “ It's an easy decision for Mexico: make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion continues to flow into their country year after year.” According to experts, the proposed 2,000-mile wall would be the largest infrastructure project in the U.S. since President Eisenhower’s highway program. While Trump estimates the cost at about $10 billion, it could actually cost up to $25 billion and would take until the end of his first term to complete. It is also unclear if it is feasible or even legal to halt remittances. To make matters worse, Trump has also come under fire for racist comments, equating Mexican immigrants with gang members, drug traffickers, and rapists.

In keeping with reductionist immigration reform, Ted Cruz states on his campaign website that “he will stop illegal immigration.” Not only that, but he also plans to build a wall across the southern border, as well as triple border security, and implement a biometric tracking system. Although his campaign does not delve into details, a biometric tracking system would likely include collecting the fingerprints of every foreigner who entered or exited the country. Congress passed a biometric tracking bill shortly after 9/11, but the Department of Homeland Security has maintained that the program is too costly and impractical. A preliminary study found that it would cost up to $6.4 billion to install the system just in all air and seaports, which would not even track the 79% of migrants who enter the U.S. over land.

The more center-leaning GOP candidate, John Kasich, fails to mention immigration on his campaign website. Even more vexing, Kasich has changed his position several times, even within the campaign season. In June 2015, he stated at an Iowa forum that undocumented immigrants who otherwise follow U.S. laws should have a pathway to obtain legal status. However, he also added that this legal status should not lead to citizenship, although that may have to be part of a compromise. Later, he told an Ohio newspaper that he does not support any legal status for undocumented immigrants, and he wanted to end birth right citizenship.

The Democratic candidates are proposing massive reforms, which will greatly improve the current system and provide desperately needed services to millions of migrants and their families. However, it will likely be extremely tough to get these reforms through a gridlocked Congress. On the other hand, the Republic candidates’ plans are either non-existent or so preposterous that they might as well be non-existent, as they will likely never bear any semblance of reality.



President Obama’s actions to normalize relations and lift the embargo against Cuba have become major topics in most candidates’ foreign policy proposals. Since the process began in December of 2014, Cuba has been removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List, the U.S. Embassy in Havana has been re-opened, and direct mail flights have been re-established. On going efforts are working to lift the trade embargo and allow to greater freedom for Americans wishing to travel to the island.

Sanders has long supported the normalization of relations with Cuba, however, his stance is nuanced. In an interview from 1985, Sanders commends Castro’s socialist reforms to improve access to universal health care and education. While Sanders has expressed hope that Cuba move towards a more democratic system of governance, he has also emphasized the need for the U.S. to respect Cuba’s sovereignty. This last statement is evident of Sander’s non-interventionist position, and he has often criticized the U.S.’s habit of toppling left-leaning regimens in Latin America (from 1898 to 1994 there were at least 41 U.S. interventions in the region – an average of one every 28 months). More recently, in 2014, Sanders traveled to Cuba to discuss human rights, trade, and health care as part of an official U.S. delegation.

Clinton’s position has slowly shifted from her time as First Lady to her more recent position as Secretary of State for the Obama Administration. As First Lady, she supported the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law, that prevents the embargo from being lifted until Cuba fulfills certain requirements, including fair elections, freeing political prisoners, and uncensored press. In her 2008 presidential run, she maintained her position of opposition to lifting the embargo, however she added a caveat, stating, “As president I would be ready to reach out and work with a new Cuba government, once it demonstrated that it truly was going to change that direction.” Then, as Secretary of State, Clinton recommended that Obama reconsider the embargo, as it “wasn’t achieving its goals.” In July of 2015, Clinton made a speech in Miami, a highly symbolic location due to the number of Cuban immigrants living there, in which she declared, “The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all.” Hillary’s changing position on Cuba could be the result of a progression in thought, though it may also just be an attempt to court Latino voters.

Although not entirely clear or detailed on his position, it appears that Trump is not opposed to the normalization of relations, stating, “Ultimately, it’s going to be good.” However, in the same interview, he went on to express that, “we could have had a better deal, a much stronger deal,” though he does not reveal what a stronger deal might entail. Other Republican candidates have criticized Trump, as they generally oppose lifting the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba.

Despite his Cuban heritage, Cruz strongly opposes normalizing relations with Cuba, especially if the country remains under the Castro regimen. During the GOP primary debate in Miami, Cruz stated that he would reverse Obama’s actions and re-break diplomatic ties with Cuba, a “nation that hate[s] us.”  He has also promised to block the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba, a necessary step in re-establishing diplomacy between the two countries. Currently the ambassador is serving in an “acting” role since the U.S. re-opened the Havana embassy in July of 2015. Cruz’s plans would set a dangerous precedent for U.S. foreign policy and damage relations in the region.

Kasich has not outlined a definitive position on Cuba thus far in the campaign. However, as Representative he voted against two measures in 2000 that would reduce the economic and travel embargoes. In an interview in February, Kasich responded to a question on breaking diplomatic relations with Cuba by stating, “Well let’s see where we are when I come [into office] and what the administration has done…I think [the Obama Administration] made a big mistake because I think Cuba needed to do something. Why are we always reaching out?...They keep demanding things so I don’t understand what the administration is doing.” It seems only time will tell what his final stance is.

The candidates express varying degrees of enthusiasm for normalizing relations with Cuba. Clinton and Sanders would build on the Obama Administration’s policy, while Cruz would break ties once again, severely damaging the budding diplomatic relations. In keeping with their lack of foreign policy experience, or even interest, Trump and Kasich have said little on the issue.



The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), enacted in 1994, is a multilateral agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada to increase economic cooperation. NAFTA has been highly controversial. Critics say it causes job losses in the U.S. and unfavorable working conditions abroad. Supporters respond by saying it will actually help create jobs and spur economic growth across the region. Currently, most experts conclude that NAFTA has been net positive for the U.S., although it has failed to deliver on the big promises made in its early years. Furthermore, it is difficult to distinguish the direct effects of NAFTA on economies in the wake of globalization and increased technology use.

Sanders strongly opposes NAFTA, blaming it for increased poverty in Mexico, loss of jobs, and an influx of undocumented migrants in the U.S. His plan is to rewrite trade deals such as NAFTA to promote fair trade in lieu of free trade. Sanders has been consistent in his position, stating in a debate in early March, “I was on a picket line in the early 1990s against NAFTA, because you didn’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.” While Sanders’ draconian interpretation of NAFTA may be a bit exaggerated, a fair trade agreement would likely be more beneficial for the American worker than the current free trade model.

Clinton has a complicated history with trade deals. She supported NAFTA as the First Lady during Bill Clinton’s Administration. As a Senator, Clinton supported free trade, as long as it “can increase living standards and foster…economic development for all parties.” In 2007, during her first presidential run, she remarked that NATFA was a mistake because it did not deliver on many promises that were made in 1994, which is mostly true. As Secretary of State, Clinton embraced free trade with the beginnings of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which she has since turned against. Her stance as a current presidential candidate has been fuzzy; she does not openly support NAFTA and other free trade agreements, but she does not decry them as middle-class and job destroying plans, either. This is another case of questioning whether Clinton’s change of heart is due to gradual belief progression, or, as is likelier in this case due to her sudden turn against TPP, an attempt to round up votes.

Trump also opposes NAFTA, as he believes it is destroying the U.S. manufacturing industry. In an interview in which Trump was asked how he would respond to an American car company that wished to open a plant in Mexico, he stated that he would charge the company a 35 percent tax on each product that was then sent back into the U.S. However, this measure directly violates NAFTA and disregards the fact that only Congress can establish separate tax rates. In a separate interview, Trump said, “I am all for free trade, but it’s got to be fair.” This statement under scores his lack of basic economic knowledge, as free trade, by definition, cannot be constrained by measures to make it “fair.”

Cruz’s positions on NAFTA and free trade have been murky. At press time, he has not given a position on NAFTA, and has only vaguely expressed opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Although he has not said much on this issue during his presidential campaign, Kasich voted for NAFTA as a Congressman in 1993. He has not spoken at length on the issue, but Kasich currently supports free trade, and also maintains that many American jobs are the result of free trade.



 The foreign policy positions of the candidates represent a large range of experiences, interests, and perceptions. Clinton, having served as Secretary of State, is by far the most qualified candidate. However, her record in Latin America is stained by revelations that she played a role in the 2009 Honduran coup d’etat. Sanders remains fervently committed to his ‘diplomacy first’ and non-interventionist beliefs, and often connects foreign policy with reducing inequality and promoting social services – two core points of his domestic campaign. Trump’s proposals are either outlandish or half-baked, and there seems to be no moderate middle ground in sight. Similarly, Cruz’s views are both simplistic and extreme, and he would not hesitate to turn back the clock to the 1950’s on the U.S.’s relationship with Cuba. Finally, Kasich leaves much to be desired in the realm of foreign policy, and, really, in his campaign in general. It seems that the only issue the candidates might be able to agree on is their condemnation of NAFTA, which, in reality, is not the catch-all to blame a stagnant economy and loss in industry jobs on that they want it to be.

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