The World

The American President Needs to Know About the Americas

Why does Latin America get so little attention in the presidential foreign policy debate?

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders gathered around a map of South America.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tom Brenner/Getty Images; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Ethan Miller/Getty Images; PytyCzech/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

A few days ago, during one of President Donald Trump’s peculiar “chopper talk” exchanges with the press on the south lawn of the White House, Voice of America reporter Bricio Segovia asked the president for his opinion on recent troublesome developments in Colombia.

“How do you feel about former FARC guerrillas calling to rearm?” Segovia asked, referring to the recent vow by the former leader known as “Iván Márquez” for the rebel group to once again take up weapons, threatening the hard-won peace process that has brought a tentative end to more than half a century of fighting. Trump looked puzzled. “Colombia, you said? You are talking about the country of Colombia?” the president asked, as if the reporter could possibly be discussing, say, Columbia University. Once Segovia clarified that, yes, he was indeed referring to a country, Trump dug deep to find a coherent response. He came up with a brief mention of the dramatic Venezuelan exodus on Colombia’s eastern border, mostly a separate issue from Segovia’s query. Trump then told the reporter that his administration has a “great relationship” with Colombia and walked away.

Trump’s exchange with Segovia might be an extreme example of American disregard for Latin America, but it’s hardly exclusive to the president. Even within the meager amount of discussion devoted to foreign policy in U.S. presidential campaigns, the region gets short shrift.

In the final days of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, I interviewed Sen. Bernie Sanders in Los Angeles and asked him about the failure of the Venezuelan socialist model. I had expected a spirited dialogue, since just a few weeks prior I had heard Sanders defend certain aspects of the Cuban regime during a Univision debate in Miami. Sanders had other ideas. “Right now, I’m running for president of the United States,” he deflected. When I persisted, Sanders assured me he indeed had an opinion on the matter but was focusing on his campaign, as if engaging in a discussion about political developments in America’s own region were anathema to the pursuit of the presidency.

The current crop of Democratic candidates is not exempt from this indifference. During the first two rounds of presidential debates, countries south of the border merited not even a handful of mentions. With perhaps a couple of exceptions (including Marianne Williamson, of all people, who referred to the history of U.S. intervention in Central America) both the candidates and the moderators seemed largely uninterested in Latin America. Only Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle elicited anything close to an original response from the 20-plus Democratic contenders, and only in the context of the immigration debate. By discussing Latin America mainly as a burden while choosing to ignore it as an area of political and economic opportunity for the United States, the Democratic field is letting Donald Trump set the terms of the debate for the whole region.

This is inexcusable, especially when Latin America is going through a complicated, transformative phase. Facing a grim economic outlook and uncertain elections, Argentina is in turmoil. After just a few months in office, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has sunk his country into a painful environmental crisis, praised a notorious torturer from the country’s 20th-century dictatorship as a “national hero,” and made a fool of himself in the world stage. On top of the renewed FARC threat, Colombia—yes, the country—is now dealing with the unprecedented challenge of handling at least 1.4 million desperate Venezuelan refugees on its eastern borders, where tension between both countries grows by the minute. Venezuela’s crisis itself is only getting worse, with President Nicolás Maduro holding on to power despite hyperinflation, extreme poverty, and growing desperation—conditions that are driving an exodus of unprecedented proportions in the region. Mexico’s economy has ground to a halt during Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s controversial first year in power, which has also seen drug violence reach frightening new levels.

None of this should be beyond the purview of a candidate vying for the American presidency. Democratic politicians have rightly warned against the perils of American intervention in a region the United States has mistreated badly in the past. But there’s a lot of space between imperialism and the current indifference. Next Thursday, the debate’s moderators—my Univision colleague Jorge Ramos among them—will have the opportunity to make the 10 candidates left in the Democratic field grapple with the complex foreign policy challenges American interests will face south of the border. They should seize it.