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THE MIAMI HERALD
Hispanic Voters Will Affect Foreign Policy
By ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
April 12, 2004
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I'm beginning to think that President Bush -- or presumptive Democratic candidate John Kerry -- will pay growing attention to Latin America, even amid the current focus on Iraq and the war on terrorism.
It's not wishful thinking. Both candidates need to make inroads with Hispanic voters to win the November election, and there is new evidence that Hispanic voters -- far from caring exclusively about domestic issues -- are increasingly interested in Latin American affairs.
According to a Herald/Zogby International nationwide poll released last week, a whopping 91 percent of Hispanics who are registered voters say U.S. policy toward Latin America is an issue they consider important. Of the total, 52 percent said they consider the issue ''very important,'' and 39 percent ``somewhat important.''
It's an amazing figure, because the poll was conducted among the most assimilated U.S. Hispanics, who one would suspect would be more detached from their ancestral countries than recent arrivals. The poll surveyed 1,000 Hispanics who are already U.S. citizens, registered voters and members of a political party.
Only 18 percent of them said they speak Spanish at home, less than half what other polls indicate is the case in the overall U.S. Hispanic population. Polling experts agree that if the Zogby poll had been conducted among the overall Hispanic population, which includes millions of recent arrivals, the bonds with Latin America would be even more intense.
What is going on? Isn't it true that the longer immigrants spend in the country, the more they tend to forget about their native countries?
Not necessarily, says pollster John Zogby, who conducted the survey. Hispanic-Americans may be repeating the experience of Jewish and Arab voters in the United States, he told me last week.
''There is an old immigration law that says that the first generation is most concerned with their home countries, the next generation is most concerned with being unequivocally defined as American and the third generation is comfortably American and looks back to its roots,'' Zogby said. ``That is happening with Hispanics.''
Hispanic-American voters definitely care more about Latin America than African Americans, Italian Americans, Asian-Pacific Americans and other Western European Americans about their ancestral countries, Zogby said.
This is bound to have an impact on U.S. foreign policy, and sooner than you may think. Until now, Democrats appealed to ''Hispanic issues'' such as healthcare, education and Social Security, while Republicans appealed to ''Hispanic values'' such as abortion, religion and guns. Foreign policy was not part of the seduction game for either party.
''This will change,'' Zogby says. ``In a close election like this one, any candidate ignoring Latin America would find himself in trouble.''
DUST OFF VOW
Bush, who is believed to need nearly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win the election, will need to dust off his pre-Sept. 11 vow to make Latin America a top priority of his administration. The Herald/Zogby poll revealed that 57 percent of likely Hispanic voters are not happy with his Latin America policy, while only 35 percent approve of it.
And Kerry, who doesn't have much of a history on Latin American affairs, will need the Hispanic vote in hotly disputed states such as Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and even Ohio and Michigan. ''Anything that drives a couple of thousand votes in these battleground states could have a seismic impact on the election,'' Zogby says.
Some of the top specialists on the Hispanic vote agree.
'When Washington finally understands that Latin America can be as important to the Hispanic vote as Israel for the Jewish vote, or Cuba for the Cuban vote, there will be not only a change of attitude in political campaigns but also in future U.S. governments' foreign policies,'' says pollster Sergio Bendixen. ``There will be a much greater interest in a policy that moves the United States toward much greater collaboration with Latin America.''
Interesting. You are not hearing much about Latin America in Washington these days. But all politics is local, and if pollsters say that Latin America is important, that counts more than whatever the U.S. foreign policy establishment says.