His failed Latin American policy could tip the scales where he needs votes the most.

November 18, 2019

| 6:00 AM

Donald TrumpThe White House/Flickr

He does business here. He wants to move his permanent residence here. He even tried to bring the G-7 heads of state here. But it is also here, in Florida, where President Trump’s re-election bid faces the greatest danger.

Democrats who want to win the 2020 election would do well to focus their foreign-policy positions both on attacking Trump’s Latin American failures and building their own plans for a prosperous, peaceful and democratic future in this hemisphere.

Ignoring southern and Caribbean basin nations is both bad policy and bad politics. A geopolitically sensitive understanding of Latin America’s importance and opportunities could be key not only to strengthening U.S. foreign-policy interests and extending our values, but to winning Florida’s electoral votes.

It’s long been conventional wisdom that the Sunshine State’s Cuban population has played a dominating role in America’s confrontational policy towards Havana. Presidential candidates would do well to recognize and answer the vocal population’s opposition to normalized relations with Cuba’s regime. But there is more to Florida’s foreign-policy interests than simply standing up to Cuba’s dictatorship.

Miami is effectively Latin America’s capital. What happens in South Beach reverberates in South America. Myriad businesses have been built by Spanish-speaking expats who brought their hopes and pinned their happiness on North American success. At the same time, they maintain their interests and relations with extended families living in Caracas, Santiago and Buenos Aires.

Nicaragua, Cuba, and most prominently, Venezuela are Trump’s outright political failures, with regimes that are growing stronger by the day thanks to a rhetorically rich, but inconsistent and incoherent U.S. policy. One day the Trump administration threatens military action, the next day it suggests change takes time and counsels patience. Managua, Havana and Caracas are foundering, but their leaders vilify Trump and blame American economic sanctions to justify heavy-handed political crackdowns. All the while, Russia and China are spending cash to prop-up regional caudillos, gaining favor, exploiting energy reserves, achieving alliances and building geopolitical advantage.

Up until now, Argentina was a win for stable, economically moderate democratic forces. Instead, its recent presidential campaign promised a return to Peronist principles. For a White House that seemingly models itself on Juan and Eva Peron’s cult-of-personality politics, this may be just fine. For anyone who cares about Latin America’s democratic maturation, this is greatly concerning.

Making Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Argentina’s new vice president is a devastating blow to the country’s hopes for expanding international markets. Tarred by corruption and dismissing previous allegations of blatant illegality, Kirchner rode a wave of populism back to power.

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Chile is on fire as well, and prospects for pacification are remote. Hong Kong-scale street protests are ablaze in a country that has shown powerful economic growth but unacceptable economic inequality. Consequential conflicts have pushed things to the brink, and authorities cancelled the COP25 meeting where Trump and Xi Jinping were supposed to work out a trade and tariff deal.

Closer to home, Mexico is teetering, too. On the one hand, Trump’s tough-love “Remain in Mexico” program is in place. On the other hand, the recent slaughter of a dual-citizen Mormon family and the armed stand-off last month with drug lord El Chapo’s son is severely testing Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration.

Mexico’s institutional weaknesses are showing. Helping it requires less White House bashing and more sane and stable diplomacy. There is great need for more engagement and support for our most influential and, arguably, most important neighboring nation. Instead, a distracted and undisciplined Trump ignores an affirmative Mexico policy. The president seems to think a successful Latin policy means paying minimum wage salaries to Mar-a-Lago immigrant employees and celebrating Cinco de Mayo on Twitter.

Domestic policy plays into this failed and anti-Latin narrative, too. Two words: Puerto Rico. This U.S. territory’s economy continues to suffer from a massive debt crisis and insufficient federal aid in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Trump treats the island and its American residents as second-class citizens, articulating racial tropes he uses to denigrate other Spanish-speaking Latin Americans.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The region’s one hope is Bolivia following Evo Morales’s ouster—no thanks to the Trump administration. A wholly internal indigenous movement, people power pushed out a leader who lost sight of his nation’s needs.

Proposing a deeper engagement policy with Latin America will not replace the need to address other 2020 presidential campaign issues. Nevertheless, it is essential to regaining U.S. leadership in this hemisphere.

Trump’s Latin American failures could cause his beloved Florida to defect from the Republican presidential candidate. Democrats credibly addressing foreign-policy issues of concern to many of America’s 60 million Latinos, however, could help win Florida’s key electoral votes—and the White House.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.