Seven years ago, Miami native Frank Mora left the Pentagon and came home to take over Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, or LACC. Since then, Mora has turned the center into a more nationally important forum of conversation on Latin America.
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This week Mora is stepping down as LACC’s director to take a sabbatical and pursue "a national project,” (he won’t yet elaborate on what that is) though he plans to return to FIU next year to teach. Mora spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett aobut the state of US Latin America policy – and where it might be headed.
Excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: Before coming to FIU in 2013 you were Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere under President Obama. How did the political realities of your job there inform how you've tried to recast the academic conversation about Latin America here?
MORA: I recall one of my first interagency meetings in the White House, on Mexico. Of course I had learned in graduate school about foreign policy and thought I knew a lot. But suddenly to see the actual dynamic and the different actors working – I realized, boy, I didn't know that much.
So I took it upon myself when I came to LACC and FIU to find ways to build bridges between the academic world and the policy world, the practice. And I wanted to expose my students to that world, so when I teach, they can see when maybe the academic world doesn't have it quite right when it comes to countries and issues like Mexico – such as how President [Andrés Manuel] López Obrador is so unexpectedly engaging the Trump Administration after Trump’s many, many attacks on Mexico and the Mexican people.
One of the best examples might be the annual hemispheric security conferences you've hosted. Have those become more important since President Trump took office and shook up standard hemispheric policy?
Well, the thing that strikes me about the Trump Administration is that there is no strategic approach in Latin America. There's just a lot of improvisation. Actually, [former Trump National Security Adviser] John Bolton's [new] book [“In the Room Where It Happened”] highlights this improvisation. And that might be OK when you're talking about a small country where we don't have a lot at stake. But when we're talking about countries when the issues are so complex – that's very disturbing to me.
So it's no secret you're a Democrat – but you're a Cuban-American Democrat in Miami. You support engagement with communist Cuba. Twenty years ago, more conservative Cubans might have called you a comunista. Do you still feel like a rare bird here in that sense?
Less so. I think there are many more Cuban-Americans that do identify themselves as Democrats, particularly younger Cuban-Americans, especially with President Obama’s policy of engagement – which was, by the way, supported by a majority of Cuban-Americans.
Now you see a majority of Cuban-Americans agreeing with President Trump's view, which is a dramatic change in only a couple of years. But to be frank with you, Tim, that language, that rhetoric is coming back. The use of “socialism” and “communism” to try to discredit those who don't agree with the mainstream Cuban Americans is rearing its head again. And I think it's unfortunate.
NEXUS OF THE AMERICAS?
Should Joe Biden become president, he says he'll return to Obama's Cuba policy. But Obama was criticized for making a lot of concessions to the Cuban regime but not getting a lot in return, especially on human rights. Would Biden be tougher with Cuba?
Engagement with Cuba means empowering the Cuban people – how do we help the Cuban people be agents of change. Some of the policies President Trump has taken with respect to remittances and travel have been very harmful to the Cuban people. And I think those things Biden will reverse. But he's also been very clear he is going to be expecting more from the relationship with the Cuban government on the issue of human rights and democracy.
Miami likes to call itself “the nexus of the Americas,” but is that true when it comes to the intellectual and policy conversation about the hemisphere? There are no real think tanks based here like, say, the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. What does Miami need to do to become a more serious hub for this kind of discussion?
I think you make a good point. I think Miami has come a long way in terms of what it means to be a hub – look at culture and art – but more needs to be done. One of the priorities that I had at LACC was to engage the private sector, to get them to invest in this. And so I went around town talking to corporations that have business or ties with Latin America. In some cases there was interest; FIU will be opening a new Brazilian studies center soon. But I was surprised that we didn't get more.
The FIU center's new interim director will be former Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís. What's it like to be replaced by a head of state?
[Laughs] When President Solís left office, we were very fortunate to have him as a visiting distinguished professor. He once spent time as a Fulbright Scholar here, so he has a long history with FIU – and he’ll also be building bridges between academia and policy. I mean, there aren't many Latin American and Caribbean centers that have former Latin American presidents as their directors.