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What the Democratic presidential candidates are saying about Latin America

Although mostly centered on migration, talk of Latin American foreign policy has increased as the presidential primaries near. Presidential hopefuls have ripped into President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, especially focusing on his “zero tolerance” policy. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has called it “dead wrong” and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro has vowed to decriminalize migration and admit climate refugees who ask for asylum. 

But the truth is that even in a crowded pool of candidates fighting for the 2020 nomination, many have failed to address how they would work with Latin American countries to address the root causes that push Latin American and Caribbean migrants to seek a better life in the United States.  

As candidates gear up for the fourth presidential debate in Westerville, Ohio—the first one that will be held in a single night with 12 candidates on stage—here is what some Democratic presidential hopefuls (and former contenders) have said about Latin American foreign policy so far. 

Michael Bennet (U.S. Senator for Colorado)

Michael Bennet made an impact in the most recent democratic debate with his strong stance on Latin America. Bennet has stated that if he is elected, he will work toward fixing the current humanitarian crisis at the border by working directly with Latin American leaders as well as putting pressure on U.S. officials to do more to address the crisis at the border in a humane way. He believes that by reaching out to various leaders in Central America, he will be able to come up with solutions toward various problems within the countries themselves, to address the problem at the root rather than focusing solely on the border itself. 

Joe Biden (former U.S. Vice President) 

Frontrunner Joe Biden has been adamant about Trump’s foreign policy for Latin America. Biden was actively engaged with policy toward the region during his time as vice-president and believes that action in Latin America is essential for the entire Western Hemisphere. Biden believes that in taking a step back from Latin America, the U.S. has allowed for other global players such as China and Russia to dominate the region through investment and trade, among other things. 

Biden has also stated that current U.S. policy toward Latin America and immigration is “morally bankrupt” and requires intense reform, while maintaining a level of respect for immigrants fleeing difficult situations in their home countries. The former vice-president believes that DREAMers should qualify as Americans and that the current American asylum program needs to be readjusted to efficiently provide the benefits it is supposed to for those fleeing persecution, while also eliminating persistent levels of abuse. And instead of a wall, Biden has pushed for the improvement of screening procedures and the need for investment in border technology. In order to truly reduce immigration, in Biden’s view root problems such as economic and security issues in sending countries—such as the Northern Triangle—need to be addressed. If elected, Biden hopes that foreign policy toward Latin America will reflect “American values,” as opposed to how the Trump administration is currently conducting foreign policy. 

Biden is also one of the few democratic presidential hopefuls who have voiced a public opinion about the U.S. embargo toward Cuba. Having supported the re-establishment of relations with Cuba and lifting the trade/travel restrictions against the island during Barack Obama’s administration, Biden naturally supports normalizing relations with the island ahead of his 2020 presidential run. 

Cory Booker (U.S. Senator for New Jersey)

Senator Booker—who during the first debate was one of the few candidates that addressed the audience in Spanish—has continuously denounced President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. If elected President, he has also committed to “work to fix the broken immigration system and ensure that America once again becomes a beacon of freedom, hope, and opportunity to the world for generations to come.” 

Booker would particularly end Trump’s family separation policy; create an asylum process that recognizes the dignity of those who have desperately fled their home country; expand protections for DREAMers and people with Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure; and fight for a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

On the issue of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, as reported by CFR, Booker supports imposing sanctions on Nicolás Maduro and his top officials for corruption and human rights violations. Although Booker does not support “anointing a new Venezuelan government,” given U.S. history in Latin America, he does support  engaging closely with partners in the region to pursue a diplomatic, negotiated settlement, including by working with a transitional government in Venezuela that can lead to peaceful elections and a return to democratic norms and stability.

Pete Buttigieg (Mayor of South Bend, Indiana) 

Mayor Pete Buttigieg has discussed his foreign policy toward Latin America in a variety of interviews. Buttigieg has made it clear that he believes in immigration reform to end family separation and would review ICE’s current methods. He believes in increasing the number of refugees allowed into the nation as well as increasing funding toward aiding humanitarian crises.

Although he has said that military intervention should be an option for the United States to deal with human rights violations when there is no other alternative, in the case of Venezuela Buttigieg does not believe military intervention will be a useful tool, rather he believes that economic or diplomatic tools should be applied. Buttigieg also recently said, as reported by CFR, that he stands behind Juan Guaidó as the rightful interim president. In his view, “the U.S. government should respond in concert with regional allies, who are shouldering the heavy burden of a large Venezuelan diaspora.” He also believes that the U.S. needs to address the Russian, Chinese and Cuban interference now complicating an effective transition in the South American country. 

Buttigieg also supports granting citizenship to the DREAMers. On NAFTA the mayor has referred to the agreement as a bad deal that requires reform. He holds fifth place in national polls. 

Julián Castro (Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Mayor of San Antonio)

For Julián Castro, to fix the humanitarian crisis at the border, there needs to be policy reform that “puts people first.” He believes in establishing policies that will speed up the path to citizenship such as the Dream and Promise Act. Castro is also a strong advocate of eliminating policies that lead to the separation of families at the border, such as Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows for criminal instead of civil penalties to be applied to undocumented migrants apprehended at the border. Castro believes that the United States should be more accepting of refugees and adopt new policies that allow for the admission of those seeking asylum, including climate refugees. 

Castro has also proposed rolling out a “Marshall Plan” for Central America. This plan would prioritize diplomacy with Central America, attending to the root causes for economic and government instability in the region and its consequences on U.S. migration and economic growth. According to Castro, U.S. engagement in the region should include the establishment of transparent, anti-corruption policies to bring forth higher standards of governance. According to Castro, the U.S. would be more effective in pursuing this plan if it is able to work with various countries to create a multilateral development fund focused on developing a more sustainable Central America. 

Secretary Castro also believes in targeting criminal networks to minimize corruption and illicit activities, and in the reestablishment of the Central American Minors Program—which allows parents who reside in the U.S. to petition for the resettlement of their children living in Central America to the U.S., while their applications are processed. Castro is also in favor of increasing funding for violence prevention programs and for bottom-up development programs to lower violence rates and create jobs in Central America. 

In a recent interview with Voice of America, Secretary Castro reiterated his party’s interest in finding and supporting a legislative instrument that grants Venezuelans living in the United States legal immigration status. He also said that Venezuelans should have the freedom to elect their own leader, in fair and transparent democratic elections and objected the idea of U.S. military intervention.

John Delaney (Former U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District)

The former entrepreneur-turned U.C. Congressman and now presidential candidate believes that U.S. interests and security can be protected in a smart way. For Delaney, a combination of electronics, manpower, fencing, and barriers is needed to curtail unlawful entry into the country. On the immigration matter, Delaney supports comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, and if elected president he would launch Plan Central America, inspired by the success of Plan Colombia, to help the governments in that region overcome the lawlessness that is at the root of population outflow to the U.S.

On Venezuela, Delaney supports “the elevation of Juan Guaidó to president following the Venezuelan constitution.” However, Delaney has spoken against direct intervention in Venezuelan power struggles by the United States, favoring the current U.S. approach to sanctions. If elected president, Delaney would provide substantial humanitarian support via USAID and increased participation in multilateral agencies such as the OAS and InterAmerican Development Bank.

Kamala Harris (U.S. Senator for California) 

So far, Kamala Harris hasn’t articulated policy views toward Latin America and the Caribbean. But she has addressed the issue of immigration policy. Throughout her campaign, Harris has emphasized her direct experience with children and adults who have sought asylum in the United States during her time as a prosecutor. Based on these experiences, Harris believes that the current abuses towards immigrants at the border need to be addressed to stop the violation of human rights. The U.S. Senator for California—currently polling third behind hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, according to the latest Economist-YouGov poll—believes that it is crucial to close private detention facilities and increase the oversight of border patrol agencies to focus on the safety of immigrants and their families as well as the general public. 

Harris has been clear about her opposition to Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance. Harris was also the first Senator to call for the removal of former secretary of homeland security Kirstjen Nielson, who resigned in April 2019. 

Harris believes in the reinstatement of DACA and DAPA to protect DREAMers from deportation and hopes to increase investment to minimize the flow of narcotics, weapons and human trafficking across the border. She also intends to pursue a policy that will lead to a stable Central America which would consequently prevent massive flows of migration. However, Harris has yet to provide concrete steps or policies to promote the stabilization of Central America, so far remaining in simple declarations. Harris holds fourth place in national polls. 

Beto O’Rourke (former U.S. Representative for Texas’ 16th Congressional district)

Despite his clumsy efforts to speak Spanish, Beto O’Rourke has yes to really address the issue of foreign policy toward the hemisphere, with the exception of immigration-related proposals. O’Rourke’s immigration plan “Reforming Our Immigration and Naturalization System and Making the System Work Better for Our Families, Our Communities, and Our Economy,“ goes beyond domestic politics. For O’Rourke, the United States needs to refocus its standing on democracy and human rights, starting with greater engagement in the region. O’Rourke’s plan is to elevate Latin America’s geopolitical importance to address one of the U.S.’s most vexing domestic issues, by helping partner countries effectively reduce violence, end the war on drugs and combat climate change, among other common goals.

To do this, the plan proposes “working with [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to expand the capacity of Mexico’s refugee system and to collaborate with Mexico on asylum seekers who are both traveling to and through Mexico.” It also includes investing $5 billion in the Northern Triangle to transform the U.S.’s development approach in Central America, a proposal Mexico will certainly endorse, since it recently presented its own Integral Development Plan along with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) to address the root causes of migration in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.

Tim Ryan (U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 13th Congressional District)

As a co-sponsor on the DREAM Act of 2019, Rep. Tim Ryan opposes Trump’s southern border wall and has condemned the family separation policy. As reported by PBS, in response to President Trump’s announcement to declare a national emergency on the southern border, Ryan introduced legislation to create a non-partisan nine-member commission to tackle U.S. immigration issues: border security, technology and infrastructure, as well as migrant detention and the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. 

During the first night of the second presidential debate held in Detroit, Michigan, however, Rep. Tim Ryan swayed right of his Democratic counterparts on the issue of decriminalizing illegal border crossings. For Ryan, migrants should be respectful of American laws and when trying to enter the U.S. “should at least ring the doorbell.” 

On Venezuela, Ryan shared with CFR that he opposes any military action against Venezuela. He does support using diplomatic powers and robust economic sanctions against Maduro and his supporters, to pressure him to relinquish his power in Venezuela. Ryan also believes that the U.S. must work with international and regional partners to build a strong economic plan and protect the region from further fiscal depression.

Bernie Sanders (U.S. Senator for Vermont) 

Sanders’ stance toward Venezuela differs from other 2020 candidates. He opposes outside intervention in the country and has not come out and called Nicolás Maduro a dictator, something that has upset Democrats and Republicans alike. He has also not recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, even when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recognized “Juan Guaidó, President of the National Assembly, as the Interim President until full, fair and free elections can be held.” 

Senator Sanders recently shared with CFR that if elected president, his administration would not be in the view of regime change, but would support the negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition, and work with other countries in the region and the international community, to support the Venezuelan people’s right to build their own future. Sanders also mentioned the importance of listening to the voices of Venezuelan activists themselves who warn against broad sanctions, such as the Trump administration’s oil sanctions, that, in his view, mainly punish the people, not the government. 

When it comes to Cuba, Sanders supports normalizing relations with the island and lifting the embargo.

Immigration reform is high on Bernie Sanders’ list of important issues he needs to tackle. He believes that a proper path toward citizenship should be implemented in DACA and DAPA to help asylum seekers speed up the naturalization process. Sanders originally voted against the creation of ICE and believes in restructuring the agency to reform immigration practice and end the agency’s brutal practices, including family separation. To make sure that agencies such as ICE are operating fairly, Sanders believes in the establishment of standards that would allow for the oversight of border control agencies, to guarantee that no U.S. government agency commits any human rights violation. 

Sanders is one of the few democratic hopefuls who has emphasized the necessity of looking at root causes when it comes to immigration. In the first democratic presidential debate, Sanders stated that on day one, he would invite the presidents and leadership of Central America and Mexico together to address the root causes of migration because this is a “hemispheric issue.” Sanders also believes that the U.S. has had a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries, which has yielded disastrous conditions, many of which have affected the number of asylum seekers fleeing their home countries today.

Regarding Puerto Rico, Sanders has listed the Caribbean island as a main issue the U.S. needs to reexamine. He believes that the resources available to the U.S. should be used toward helping rebuild Puerto Rico after the damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. He wants to restore “self-rule” in Puerto Rico by removing Wall Street vulture funds from the country to allow for the empowerment of the Puerto Rican people themselves. Sanders is in second place in national polls, behind Vice President Joe Biden and ahead of Senator Elizabeth Warren. 

Joe Sestak (Former U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District)

The former Congressman has reported that one of his main motivators to run is U.S. abandonment of global leadership. Sestak believes that the U.S. must return to a values-based liberal world order by revitalizing diplomatic engagement that convenes the world for two primary objectives: putting the brakes on climate change and putting an end to the injustices of an illiberal world order led by China and Russia, but accompanied by emerging autocrats from Turkey to the Philippines, Hungary to Venezuela. 

Sestak is also concerned with China’s increased influence and global investments, including in Latin America. As China builds roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure across Africa and Latin America, Sestak believes that now more than ever, the United States needs to improve ties, particularly with developing nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, to help bind them to U.S. core values and rules of fair trade, instead of to China’s totalitarianism.

On the issue of Venezuela, Sestak doesn’t favor military action, but rather proposes convening the regional Organization of American States (OAS)—and other international organizations as appropriate—to compel changes in Venezuela that will bring about a political settlement that avoids a civil war while bringing about just governance. Sestak also supports appropriate financial sanctions against those in government who are looting their nation, often in conjunction with drug traffickers, and travel sanctions against the same.

Elizabeth Warren (U.S. Senator for Massachusetts) 

Elizabeth Warren labels her foreign policy a “foreign policy for all.” But despite her famous stock of proposals and plans, Warren doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive one for policy in the Western Hemisphere. She believes that current foreign policy has been implemented to only benefit the wealthy and requires intense reform to benefit the 99 percent. Warren opposes the ratification of “NAFTA 2.0,” (or its official name “United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement)” the deal that the Trump administration struck to replace NAFTA. Regarding Venezuela, Warren opposes military interventions but supports sanctions on the country if they are implemented in tandem with supplying humanitarian aid. On June 3, 2019, Warren co-sponsored a resolution that prohibits unauthorized military action in Venezuela. 

On other neighbor issues, Warren is strongly critical of the border wall and supports re-installing President Obama’s immigration reform to fix a system that she feels the Republican party has ruined. Warren is a supporter of including a pathway toward citizenship for DREAMers and their families and supports the idea of providing legal aid to immigrants facing deportation, which is why she co-sponsored S.2540/H.R.4646, a bill that allows the government to pay the expenses of legal counsel for immigrants.

Warren also believes in the need to provide aid to Puerto Rico to allow the country to become prosperous and recover from the damage incurred by the hurricanes. To that end, she believes in bringing forth legislation, such as the U.S. Territorial Relief Act, that would allow the United States to help Puerto Rico as it continues to be affected by a financial crisis. Warren ranks third in national polls. 

Marianne Williamson (Author)

Author Marianne Williamson supports legislative reforms that includes a full path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who do not have serious criminal background issues. She also favors reducing the cost of naturalization and increasing resources to help people navigate that process more easily.

On the issue of Venezuela, Williamson shared recently with CFR that Trump’s support of Juan Guaidó is a counterproductive approach. She also believes that the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government have made the country’s economic crisis worse and generated higher levels of migration out of the country, creating enormous difficulties for neighboring countries. In turn she proposes supporting moderate factions on both sides that seek a peaceful transition and supporting existing efforts to promote dialogue. 

Former Contenders

Kirsten Gillibrand (U.S. Senator for New York)

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential race last August. For Senator Gillibrand, the administration’s hateful attacks on immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are outrageous and unacceptable. Senator Gillibrand supports family reunification and has expressed her opposition to the inhumane treatment of children and families at the border. She also supports a pathway to citizenship, and the enactment of a comprehensive immigration reform.

On Venezuela, Senator Gillibrand supports free and fair elections monitored by international experts, and firmly opposes military intervention. She also believes that a fair judiciary, an open press, and other aspects of a truly thriving democracy must be restored in Venezuela. For the N.Y. Senator, Venezuelans, like other asylum seekers who reach our shores, deserve U.S. protection.

Seth Moulton (U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 6th Congressional District)

Congressman Seth Moulton supports, without delay, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that curbs illegal immigration while providing immigrants who follow the law and contribute to [our] society with a chance at the American Dream. On the DREAMers issue, for Senator Moulton, separating them from their families through detainment and deportation is not consistent with American values, and comprehensive immigration reform legislation must ensure this practice does not continue.

On Venezuela, Congressman Moulton thinks that the Trump administration’s approach to Venezuela is a throwback to the Cold War summarized as: intervening in support of a coup, blaming Cuba for everything, and in the process, making America a foil for Maduro to use with his people as the reason his economy is faltering. However, Moulton supports continued sanctions on Venezuelan leaders and encouraging the opposition.