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THE MIAMI HERALD
Hispanic Vote Should Increase Focus Southward
November 4, 2004
Despite predictions of worsening relations between a second Bush administration and Latin America, I'm not sure that will happen. Bush will be forced to pay greater attention to the region because of the emergence of a more powerful than expected Hispanic voters' bloc in Tuesday's election.
Exit polls show that, for the first time, the nation's estimated 9 million Hispanic voters became a truly bipartisan voting bloc in Tuesday's election, leaving behind their past overwhelming support for the Democratic party and becoming a key factor in Bush's nationwide victory.
A record 44 percent of Hispanics nationwide voted for Bush, compared to 54 percent for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, according to a joint exit poll by CNN and other major U.S. networks. In 2000, Bush got only 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, and former Democratic candidate Al Gore received 62 percent, exit polls showed four years ago.
Tuesday's election results show that the Hispanic vote will be up for grabs in the 2008 elections and will thus be worth courting by the next U.S. presidential candidates.
In addition, Hispanic voters elected their first two senators, Mel Martinez in Florida and Ken Salazar of Colorado, and increased their participation from 7 percent to 8 percent of the overall U.S. electorate.
''This election puts the Hispanic community with one foot in each major political party and gives it a huge political advantage,'' says Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. ``Future elections in the United States will be win-win for Hispanics.''
WILL AFFECT TIES
All of this will definitely impact U.S. relations with Latin America, regardless of whether U.S. presidents care about the region or not. A pre-election Herald-Zogby International poll showed that more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters believe that U.S. policy toward Latin America is an issue they consider very or somewhat important when making their decision to vote.
Granted, there was no big fiesta in Latin America following Bush's victory. The news was received in most countries with resignation, occasional sadness, and many predictions of worsening U.S.-Latin American ties.
In Argentina, the country with some of the highest levels of anti-American sentiment in the region, the pro-government leftist daily Pagina 12 ran a picture of Bush across its front page with the banner headline, ''La Misma Piedra,'' or ``(Stuck with) The same Stone.''
In Brazil, the left-of-center daily Folha de Sao Paulo led its entire election coverage under the banner, ''The empire votes.'' It was hard to find any trace of pro-Bush emotion in any headline in the region.
But it's an open secret that President Bush is not popular in most of Latin America and that an overwhelming majority in the region rooted for Kerry. Except in Colombia and Central American countries, the positive image of the United States in the region has dropped sharply.
According to the Latinobarómetro poll, a survey of more than 18,000 people in 18 Latin American countries, the region's overall positive image of the United States has fallen from 71 percent in 2002 to 64 percent this year.
In Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, the drop has been steeper than average. Mexicans' positive opinion about the United States has dropped from 72 percent in 2000 to a low of 41 percent this year. In Brazil, it has dropped to a 50 percent low, and in Argentina to a 32 percent low over the same period.
MUST BUILD BRIDGES
On Wednesday, I asked Latinobarómetro director Marta Lagos in Santiago, Chile, whether Bush's victory would bring about a pragmatic accommodation or greater criticism from Latin American critics. She didn't have to think very hard.
''We will see a further consolidation of the idea that Latin America has been abandoned by the United States,'' Lagos said.
"The feeling in Latin America, especially in South America, is that the United States will be entirely focused on Iraq.''
Maybe so. But, regardless of what Latin Americans think, Bush -- and his successors -- will have no option but to spend more time trying to build bridges with the region. It will be a matter of votes -- the one thing politicians pay attention to.