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Latin America Report

What If They Held A Debate In Miami And Nobody Talked About Latin America?

Wilfredo Lee
RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU DIDN'T SPEAK BAD SPANISH TONIGHT: Democratic presidential candidates on the second night of debates at Miami's Arsht Center last week.

Miami is often called the capital of Latin America. So when 20 Democratic presidential candidates gathered for debates in Miami last week, WLRN’s Americas editor Tim Padgett thought he'd hear more about Latin America policy. But as Padgett told WLRN’s Luis Hernandez, he and a lot of other South Floridians were disappointed.

READ MORE: Yes, the Dems Should Visit Homestead, No, It's Not a Substitute for Engaging Latinos.

Excerpts from their conversation:

HERNANDEZ: Tim, I get the sense you feel the way candidate Marianne Williamson felt at last week's second Democratic debate when she said: “I haven’t heard anybody on this stage who’s talked about foreign policy in Latin America…”

PADGETT: Yes, Luis, I agree with Williamson – and I think you can tell from the local audience applause Williamson got at the Arsht Center that a lot of folks in South Florida felt the same way.

To be fair to the candidates, they really weren't asked many foreign policy questions. Maybe at the next debates later this month, I don't know. But I simply thought given that these debates were in Miami they might acknowledge how important Latin America and the Caribbean are to voters here – and to the rest of the country. I mean, you're talking about a region that has a tremendous impact on issues like trade, drugs and especially the hot button issue of immigration.

What Latin America policy specifics were you hoping the candidates would bring up?

Trump is spending a lot of U.S. foreign policy capital trying to take down the authoritarian socialist regime in Venezuela. But that campaign isn't going so well. So how would the Democrats do better? Who knows? They didn't bring it up.

Well for starters, Venezuela. I mean, it's only the worst humanitarian crisis in modern South American history, right? The Trump administration is spending a lot of the U.S.’s foreign policy capital right now trying to take down the authoritarian socialist regime there. But that campaign isn't going so well. So how would the Democrats do better?

What would they do about the fact that Russia and China are supplanting U.S. influence in our own hemisphere? Mexico is now the U.S.'s largest trading partner – but President Trump’s threatening to raise tariffs on its goods if it doesn't stop undocumented immigrants. Which brings us to perhaps the most important Latin America policy issue we're facing right now: How do we help make Central America a less hellish place for people to live so all those immigrants don't feel the desperate need to flee here?

But I did hear some of the candidates address that latter concern about Central America.

You're right – but as an offshoot of the questions about immigration. Then again, I've said for a long time that the U.S. has to approach immigration as a foreign policy issue, not just domestic policy. Former Vice President Joe Biden pointed out that he gets that when it comes to Central America when he said:

“I’d surge immediately billions of dollars’ worth of help to the region…I’m the guy that got a bipartisan agreement…to spend $740 million to deal with the problem…It was working…And along came this president [Trump] and he…immediately discontinued that.”


Do you think the candidates hurt themselves with Latino voters here in Florida and South Florida by not raising more Latin America concerns while they were here?

Yes I do. Latino voters, especially here in Florida, do not appreciate either party assuming that they're a monolith or that they only care about one issue like immigration. I think Cuban voters here wanted to hear the candidates’ opinions about Trump's get-tough-on-Cuba agenda. I think Puerto Rican voters want Puerto Rico's terrible problems addressed.

Credit Wilfredo Lee / AP
BETO-BASHING: Candidate Beto O'Rourke's debate Spanish was widely panned on social media.

And as you wrote in your WLRN commentary last week, if they hurt themselves with Latino voters in Florida they hurt their chances of winning the presidency?

I think so. We talk a lot about the Latino swing vote in the U.S. – but Latino voters in Florida have proven that they actually can help swing presidential elections. A lot of people still think Hillary Clinton's failure to galvanize more Latinos here four years ago cost her Florida by one percentage point to Trump.

Finally, I've got to ask: Many of the candidates did speak Spanish during the debates here and they did not get very good reviews. Was their Spanish really that bad?

Well, coming to Miami and speaking the Spanish they spoke is a bit like walking into Little Havana and serving people Nescafé instant coffee.

Was there anybody who was really bad at it?

Well, I don't want to mention any names. Cory Booker. But to be fair, a lot of it was grammatically correct Spanish. The biggest problem is always the bad gringo accents. I know – I myself speak Spanish with a gringo accent. But did anybody tell these guys that Telemundo was already translating their answers into Spanish? There was no need to torture us with their Spanish.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.