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Dangerous Line: Florida Expats Now See The U.S. President As Their Political Hitman

President Trump with Latino supporters at his golf resort in Doral on Friday.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
VISA VENGEANCE? President Trump with Colombian and other Latino supporters at his golf resort in Doral in September.

COMMENTARY It's right for expats to urge a president to sanction repressive regimes. But it's dangerous for him to be their petty partisan surrogate back home.

U.S.-Latin American relations have always been muddy. But a line’s been crossed this year that could turn them into a mangrove swamp.

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That line’s being most fanatically erased in – surprise! – Florida. Consider one of the more disturbing moments of a disturbing election cycle. In September, at President Trump’s Doral golf resort, one of the conservative Colombian expat business leaders he was hosting publicly urged him to revoke the U.S. visa of former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Not because Santos is guilty of corruption or human rights abuses or security threats. But because conservative Colombians – including the government of Santos’ successor, Iván Duque – brand Santos a radical, Castro-hugging leftist. Why? For having forged a peace deal with Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas, the FARC, that ended the country’s half-century-long civil war.

More troubling than that absurd lie about Santos – he’s a centrist who as defense minister in the 2000s led the campaign to beat back the FARC – is the realization that Latin American expats consider it as normal as Spanglish now to ask a U.S. president to aid political witch hunts back in the motherland.

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It’s certainly appropriate for Cuban or Venezuelan or Nicaraguan exiles to implore a U.S. president to sanction and otherwise squeeze genuinely repressive regimes. But it’s an altogether different thing – a dangerous thing – to expect a U.S. president to be a petty partisan surrogate in a foreign country.

It’s even more dangerous when that U.S. president smiles approvingly at the suggestion, as Trump did in Doral.

Trump so far has not revoked Santos’ visa. That’s most likely because the international outcry over treating a respected ex-head of state that way, especially as staunch a U.S. ally as Santos, would be more deafening than “Macho Man” at a MAGA rally. And because, with the election over, Trump no longer needs the Colombian votes that helped him win Florida.

If Latin American presidents, minsters, senators fear they could suddenly become the victim of politically motivated White House buckshot, you’re asking for a lot of bilateral bust.

But the fact that such underhanded back-scratching is no longer unthinkable in expat enclaves, or in the Beltway, bodes pretty ill for already fraught U.S.-hemispheric ties. It throws toxic sand into the bipartisan diplomatic gears, especially when two nations like the U.S. and Colombia try to coordinate on issues as knotty and perilous as cocaine interdiction. If Latin American presidents, ministers, senators fear they could suddenly become the victim of politically motivated White House buckshot, you’re asking for a lot of bilateral bust.

It’s just as hazardous when officials of a foreign country decide it’s bien to stick their noses in a U.S. campaign. Some Colombian politicos did just that this year, a brazen stump-for-Trump frolic that included endorsements of Republican candidates like Congresswoman-elect Maria Elvira Salazar of Miami – not to mention lying pronouncements that Joe Biden, like Santos, is a Castro-kissing socialista. Things got so unseemly U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Philip Goldberg urged Colombian pols on Twitter last month to “refrain from involvement in U.S. elections.”


His diplomacy-by-tweet came too late. And by then right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had also gotten in on the act. Neither he nor leftist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López – who’s as enamored of Trump’s strongman skills as he is terrified of his retribution – has yet recognized U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Orange County then-Mayor-elect Jerry Demings with Brazilian expat supporters of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.
Orange County then-Mayor-elect Jerry Demings with Brazilian expat supporters of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

Which is a reminder the new hemispheric “political globalism” (as one pro-Trump Colombian congressman dubiously spun it for me) looks as dumb as it is deviant. For all of Biden’s magnanimous rhetoric – including an op-ed he penned last monthexpressing his good will toward Colombia – it’s hard to imagine things between him and Bogotá won’t at least start out as icy as an Andean peak thanks to this (as he’d say) malarkey. And bottom line: Colombia needs the U.S. a lot more than the U.S. needs Colombia.

But U.S. politicians look just as dumb when they do it. Two years ago Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings was urged by voters in Orlando’s burgeoning Brazilian expat community to endorse then-candidate Bolsonaro. He did – even shouting his support at a rally – until WLRN informed Demings, who is Black, of Bolsonaro’s astonishingly racist record. That same day Demings’ office released a statement saying he “renounces any support for Mr. Bolsonaro…and regrets that he was misled.”

Misled to cross a line that’s getting trampled in Florida – and, increasingly, this hemisphere.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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