Hispanic American Concerns

The U.S. government needs a well-informed, sensi­tive, politically sustainable policy toward Lat­in America and a carefully considered immigration reform.

Kris Connor/Getty Images
Kris Connor/Getty Images

In December 1984, Hispanic members of Congress, representing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), made a 14-day trip to seven Latin American countries — the caucus’s first foreign trip since its founding in 1976. The group was warmly received by its hosts in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, EI Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru, where it met with every head of state and foreign minister and with labor leaders, church officials, human rights groups, and the press. Cultural and linguistic ties between hosts and visitors were immedi­ately recognized and embraced. As then Presi­dent of Peru Fernando Belaunde Terry said, "This is the first time we have been able to speak in Spanish to members of the United States Congress."

The CHC’s trip not only was useful, but also signaled that the Hispanic community of the United States-the 15.9 million) Americans of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Caribbean, Central and broadly Latin American, and Spanish ancestry, plus the more than 3 million Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico and an estimated 1 million Americans of Portuguese descent — is slowly but steadily and conscien­tiously becoming involved in foreign policy issues. Hispanics have long been interested in foreign policy, particularly with respect to Latin America, but the community’s thinly spread leadership necessarily has concentrated on domestic issues. Lately, however, Hispan­ics have increasingly recognized that the is­sues of peace, defense and arms control, and trade affect the quality of life in the United States as surely as do health care, education, and the state of the environment. In addition, many Hispanics worry that U.S. foreign poli­cy, especially toward Latin America, is losing coherence and effectiveness faster than ever. In fact, the most useful and lasting contribu­tion that American Hispanics can make to foreign policy today is to help the U.S. government develop a well-informed, sensi­tive, politically sustainable policy toward Lat­in America — in particular, one that gives ongoing attention to the social and political problems that lie at the root of the region’s ills.

Hispanics bring several formidable assets to this task. Many Hispanic leaders have first­hand, expert knowledge of various parts of Latin America through personal and family ties, frequent visits, and professional, business, or academic interests. Moreover, their com­mon cultural bonds have created some degree of consensus among Hispanics on U.S. Latin America policy.

As has been widely noted, if current trends continue, Hispanics will constitute the largest minority group in America by the year 2000. Already, 85 percent of the Hispanic popula­tion is concentrated in nine states that possess 193 electoral votes-more than two-thirds of the 270 needed to elect a president.

Yet Hispanics also face important obstacles to greater influence. The diversity of the community has created splits on key aspects of U.S. Latin America policy — notably, Central America and immigration reform. Hispanics are greatly underrepresented in the upper echelons of foreign policy and national securi­ty agencies. And until recently, Hispanics were inhibited from speaking out on foreign­ policy issues by a widely held perception that minority groups should confine their criti­cisms of the U.S. government to domestic policies — despite the fact that above-average percentages of blacks and Hispanics served and died in the Vietnam War. The Hispanic community must be more insistent on partici­pating in U.S. foreign policy and must make sure that it is in on the takeoffs, not just the crash landings, of American diplomacy.

Although few ethnic groups in the United States are as homogeneous as most outsiders believe, the Hispanic community is unusually diverse. Hispanics have come to America not only from many different countries, but for many different reasons as well. Cuban Ameri­cans, for example, immigrated primarily for political reasons. Although the Mexican immi­grants of the early 1900s came searching for both more freedom and more economic oppor­tunity, most recent Mexican immigration has been prompted exclusively by economics. Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, also have come to the mainland looking primarily for better jobs and living standards, but many of the new Central American immigrants crowding cities such as Washington, D.C., are fleeing political oppression. These differences have profound­ly affected Hispanic voting and the Hispanic influence on national politics.

Approximately 9 million Hispanics — 60 percent of the national total — live in the five southwestern states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Sixty-five percent of all Hispanic registered voters are found in these states as well. Hispanics in the Southwest are overwhelmingly Democrats; according to the Southwest Voter Registration Project, in 1980 72 percent of the region’s Hispanics voted for Jimmy Carter and in 1984 70 to 75 percent voted for Walter Mondale.

The midwestern and northeastern states of Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York contain most of America’s Puerto Ricans, who make up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population and who also traditional­ly vote Democratic.

Breaking this mold are the Cuban Ameri­cans, who make up 54.8 percent of Florida’s Hispanic population and 5.5 percent of the U.S. total. Composed predominantly of Cu­bans who fled their native island after Fidel Castro’s takeover and their descendants, Cu­ban Americans are the most politically conser­vative Hispanic group and vote Republican. President Ronald Reagan received 59 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote in 1980, and in 1984, according to Republican National Committee tallies of an exit poll conducted by the Spanish International Network, the president won 94 percent of the state’s Cuban Americans.

Hispanics’ growing numbers have been reflected in recent local and state election results. The CHC has grown from four founding members in 1976 to 13 today. Large cities such as Denver, Miami, and San Antonio now have Hispanic mayors. In the last 10 years, two Hispanic governors have been elected in New Mexico. And eight Cuban Americans now sit in the Florida state legislature.

Most Hispanics agree that U.S. leaders have never taken Latin America seriously. They believe that U.S. policy fails to understand that the most important dimensions of U.S.-­Latin American relations are political, social, and economic. Yet, with the exceptions of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neigh­bor policy and President John Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, U.S. policy in Latin America has been oriented toward crisis. The region has been considered strategically im­portant only during periods of heated conflict.

As a result, U.S. administrations have too often treated Latin American countries as pawns in the East-West struggle or as repeat­edly rediscovered "amigos" in need of a hand­out. Washington traditionally has trusted in either alarmism or do-goodism. Further, it prescribes one policy for all of Latin America, rather than considering the intrinsic needs and problems of each country and addressing them accordingly. Thus Latin American coun­tries have not received the individual, long-­range economic and political attention and assistance they deserve.

Proposals Worth Pursuing

Hispanics repeatedly have favored compre­hensive economic and political programs to strengthen Central and South American de­mocracies. The problems of emigration and immigration, the social and political strife in Central America, and the major difficulties of the region’s struggling democracies are all economic. These countries need creative fi­nancing for their debts and stimulation for their economies. In fact, a new Marshall Plan is needed to fight long-standing problems of underdeveloped industry, poverty, illiteracy, hunger, unemployment, and a lack of adequate education, social services, and social and politi­cal justice.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently has proposed just such a plan for Latin America — the Western Hemisphere De­velopment Program. Basically, it would estab­lish a bank for long-term and large-scale public financing; meet the individual needs of debtor countries; buy time for building the infrastructure that Latin economies need and that International Monetary Fund loans fail to provide; and provide a more flexible and fairer framework for paying the interest on debts.

Another idea worth pursuing is the Free Trade Co-production Zone for the U.S.-Mexi­can border area, which proposes to ease the immigration problem by attracting industry to both sides of the roughly 2,000-mile-long frontier. This plan calls for the establishment of a bilateral commission comprising U.S. and Mexican officials and academicians to develop a consensus on dealing with uncontrolled immigration to the United States. Such an effort would mark the first meeting between Mexico and the United States in the last 20 years devoted exclusively to immigration is­sues. The plan also would establish a bank to make economic development loans and to extend financial and technical assistance in Mexico and in the border region of the United States to any cooperative organization or private business. Mexico and the United States would contribute equally to the capital and administration of the bank. And the proposal would establish a free-trade zone along the border. Any goods grown, pro­duced, or manufactured within the zone, on either side of the border, could move duty-free throughout the zone. Both plans have been stimulating thinking about bold, new, and exciting approaches to U.S. Latin America policy.

Many Hispanics also agree that although some current U.S. health, education, and information programs for Latin America have been successful, U.S. aid strategy should place more emphasis on applying modern techno­logical knowledge to solve Latin America’s problems. Technical assistance programs, es­pecially in the new high-technology fields, should be expanded, with the aim of helping Latin Americans create their own high-tech­nology enterprises and ventures. The United States also should consider establishing a medical corps, similar to the Peace Corps, to help attack Latin America’s still-serious health problems.

A broad consensus also exists among His­panics that Washington must be keenly inter­ested in promoting regard for human rights in Latin America. Not until the Carter adminis­tration did the United States begin taking a hard look at human rights abuses of the Right as well as the Left. Hispanic groups, including the CHC, have been particularly concerned with political repression in Chile, even though in June a state of siege was formally lifted because of U.S. pressure. The continuation of totalitarian regimes of the Left and authoritar­ian regimes of the Right can only delay the eventual triumph of democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere, and thus needlessly perpetuates conflict.

There is a common Hispanic interest in several issues that touch on foreign policy as well, such as bilingual education and narcotics control. Most Hispanics agree that bilingual education, which is affected by immigration, is not a special gift to immigrants but a sound and effective strategy for teaching English. The aim of such programs has always been to help all new Americans become proficient in English and therefore become viable members of the American community. Concerning the drug trade, much of which is centered in Latin America, Hispanic congressional representa­tives voted seven to one for the Defense Authoriza­tion Act of 1986, a bill that would allow the U.S. military to help federal officials with drug searches and arrests outside U.S. territo­ry. This vote clearly shows the strong congres­sional Hispanic commitment to cracking down on narcotics trafficking.

Against this backdrop of consensus, the foreign policy disagreements created largely by the Hispanic community’s diversity should be seen as tactical, not strategic. Still, they have arisen on major issues. Cuban Ameri­cans, who are strongly determined that there should be "no more Cubas," as well as many new exile groups, such as the emerging Nica­raguan community, have been very vocal in urging the United States to continue its strong stand against communism in Central America.

Although other Hispanic groups are sympa­thetic to this concern, they do not agree that Washington should attempt militarily to over­throw the Nicaraguan government in Mana­gua unless U.S. national security is directly threatened. In fact, within a two-month period, the caucus vote swung by three votes to support the Reagan administration’s desire to provide humanitarian and nonmilitary aid to anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. Rapidly changing events-especially the April visit of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra to Moscow and Reagan’s about-face on the question of militarily overthrowing the Sandi­nistas affected Hispanic members of Con­gress as much as other Americans.

Shedding Inhibitions

Another potential concern, though not yet within the Hispanic community as a whole, is the political status of Puerto Rico. Since 1952, when they voted to become a commonwealth, the Puerto Rican people themselves have been divided on this issue. In the island’s 1984 gubernatorial election, 48 percent of Puerto Ricans voted to continue this unique relation­ship with the United States. But these election results also indicate that some 45 percent of Puerto Rican voters support statehood and that another four percent or so believe that Puerto Rico should seek independence. His­panics, along with other Americans, are be­coming increasingly educated about these questions, and they believe that Puerto Ricans must be guaranteed the right of self-determi­nation.

Also frustrating the efforts of Hispanics to influence U.S. foreign policy has been their inability to gain access to the seats of bureau­cratic power. Currently, six Hispanics hold ambassadorships: Thomas Aranda in Uru­guay, Diego Ascencio in Brazil, John Gavin in Mexico, Frank Ortiz, Jr., in Argentina, Alber­to Piedre in Guatemala, and Fernando Ron­don in Ecuador. And during the Carter ad­ministration, two Hispanics were appointed to visible and influential positions: Esteban Torres, now a Democratic representative from California, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and

Cultural Organization and Abelardo Valdez served as chief of protocol. Torres’s appoint­ment finally gave Europeans a firsthand op­portunity to see a Hispanic functioning as a representative of the American people. Valdez set an even broader precedent, having met with all heads of state and other foreign emissaries who visited Washington. Yet there is no Hispanic currently on the National Security Council staff, and Hispanics make up only 4 percent of the Foreign Service and only 1.5 percent of U.S. military officers, most serving at junior levels.

Hispanics must shed their inhibitions about foreign policy activism, if only because as the community grows, its interests will expand. Latin America is a natural focus for Hispanics today, but, at the same time, they are becom­ing more concerned with the East-West con­flict, nuclear arms and defense, the Middle East, trade issues, the U.S. budget deficit and the related debt crisis, East Asia, apartheid in South Africa, and hunger and poverty in sub ­Saharan Africa.

In pursuing their foreign policy goals, His­panics have recognized that they share many interests with other groups, including Asians, blacks, native Americans, and women, and they are beginning to forge coalitions. For example, Hispanics have joined with the black community in protesting the inhumane policy of apartheid in South Africa and, more recent­ly, in pushing for stronger measures against narcotics traffickers.

What U.S. foreign policy needs overall is a longer view. A more sensible, far-sighted, and ultimately successful foreign policy will recog­nize that Latin American countries must re­ceive individual, long-range economic and political attention and assistance. It will recog­nize that if the U.S. government truly cares about democratic rule and rising standards of living for the world’s peoples, it will not coddle and tolerate any tyrants, whether of the Right or the Left. The United States should not reserve condemnation and rejection only for communist regimes. Using all of the words and actions, rewards and punishments, at its disposal, the United States should act in the best interests of local populations — and thus in its own best interest.

Policy toward Latin America in partic­ular should look beyond the next vote in Congress on foreign military or economic aid. It should not lump all Latin countries into one category or divide them into friends and enemies depending on whether they are com­munist or anticommunist. Washington also must understand that immigration is not just a problem; it has roots in the land of the immigrant. Therefore, the solutions to exces­sive immigration should be sought in coopera­tion with the principal countries of origin. Immigration reform requires not only well-­protected and well-monitored borders, but also economic growth on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border and job protection for U.S. citizens.

Because of their heritage, Hispanic Ameri­cans have a valuable contribution to make as advisers to and practitioners of U.S. foreign policy. But Hispanics also have a responsibili­ty to be active in the field of foreign policy and especially to help their government develop a sound policy toward its hemispheric neigh­bors.

This figure is based on a nationwide 1983 Census Bureau estimate that includes an undetermined percentage of the Hispanic illegal-immigrant population. All other population figures and percentages are based on the 1980 census.

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