Whatever Happened to Latino Political Power?

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DEMOGRAPHY is destiny, or so the saying goes, but Latinos are learning this political season that destiny can take detours.

As their population in the United States surged from 35 million in 2000 to nearly 57 million, Latinos became the subjects of a feel-good political story that bathed a marginalized minority in the glow of demographic triumphalism. Acting as a cohesive political force, Latinos were supposed to power Democratic majorities for decades and enshrine the welcoming immigration policies they overwhelmingly favor.

Instead, the 2016 campaign is showing how viscerally the paranoia of a majority can take aim at those gaining ground. Rather than a moment of triumph, this could be the year of the Latino eclipse.

“Today we march. Tomorrow we vote.” That chant brought more than a million people into the streets in 2006 to protest tough immigration policies promoted by conservative Republicans. Since then Latinos have held to an ethnic empowerment strategy based on a single policy objective — citizenship for unauthorized immigrants — and a single tactic — becoming an essential constituency in presidential elections.

Juan Manuel Santos, 2016 Nobel Peace Prize

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Niemans Rosental Alves, Eugene Robinson and Andres Cavelier reflect on their history with Santos

By Eryn Carlson, Joseph Lichterman and Shan Wang

juan-manuel-santos

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos is the winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. The 1988 Nieman Fellow, accompanied by his wife Maria Clemencia Rodriguez, talks to journalists at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, on Oct. 7. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

On Friday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced. The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Prize to Santos “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians and displaced close to 6 million people,” according to a statement on the Nobel website. “The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process. This tribute is paid, not least, to the representatives of the countless victims of the civil war.”

Santos, who has overseen peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels, was a 1988 Nieman Fellow. Santos’ Nieman classmates, Rosental Alves, now the director of Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin and Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The Washington Post offered their reflections on their time with Santos here in Cambridge and beyond. Andres Cavelier, NF ’08 and a Colombian journalist who worked with Santos at El Tiempo, also shared his thoughts. Here are some of the highlights of our conversations with Alves, Robinson, and Cavelier, lightly edited and condensed.

Alves on his reaction to Santos winning the Nobel:

I was delighted to see that. I had already seen some cartoons in Colombia mocking him, insinuating that he was doing all this because he wanted the peace prize — you lost your Nobel hahaha—which was part of the campaign by Colombian demagogues, especially his political adversary Alvaro Uribe, who used social media, in fact. He [Uribe] invested a lot in social media with lies, myths, and half truths. That led to the success of the “No” in the referendum on Sunday. I mean, this is pretty significant. Especially in light of what happened with the referendum. I’m very happy. I think it’s good for Colombia. I think it’s very fair because Juan Manuel has had an obsession for working toward this in a country where he knew that this is a very complex issue. He knew he would face fierce opposition, and that the peace would be used as a political tool, as it was. I think he had tremendous courage to take that path. For us, outside, it seems obvious, right? You have an endless war of more than 50 years, and it’s obvious that you should work for peace, but it’s not the case. It’s a very complex situation.

Alves on what it was like to be Santos’ classmate at Harvard:

In my 1988 Nieman class there were three people from Latin America and because of that affinity we became very good friends, and I became very good friends with Juan Manuel and his new wife at that point. So there was some affinity between me, Juan Manuel, and Eduardo Ulibarri, from Costa Rica. We had a very good relationship.

After the Nieman year, I went to Colombia a few times as a correspondent covering violence there and Juan Manuel was the kind of managing editor, the sub director of El Tiempo, the newspaper that used to belong to his family, now it’s not anymore. He was very helpful with me.

Alves on meeting with Santos in Colombia:

Recently, I saw him a few times. I visited him in the presidential palace after the University of Texas here acquired the archives of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Initially, there was a negative reaction in Colombia for why the family sent it to an American university as opposed to a national archive in Colombia. I went to talk to him to explain that. He was very receptive.

The last time I saw him, I ran into him in the streets of Cartagena, which was almost like the magical realism of Garcia Marquez. I went out of a restaurant, and he was walking in the streets on his way to his car, but instead of going to his car with his family, he was talking with people. It was late on a Saturday night and even people who were not approaching him, he was approaching them. It was very funny. We had a little chat in the streets of Cartagena. Yes, we kept contact.

Alves on looking back to the Nieman year:

First of all, he was different from us, from the rest of the class because he was coming from a rich family, owner of a newspaper, while all of the others were working journalists. He was a journalist, but somehow he was different from us. Sometimes we joked this guy one day will become president of Colombia. It was kind of the class joke. A couple of decades later, sure enough he was and is the president of Colombia. I told him this when we met in the longer visit that I had in the presidential office there, and of course he laughed.

What I remember is that most of his classes were from the business school. He really connected with [Harvard Business School] and the Kennedy School. He took the fellowship very seriously, and in a very dedicated way.

In general, he was very well integrated with the group, although he was very serious and had an attitude that stood out of the more relaxed crowd of working journalists.

I have seen throughout the years many times he mentioned the Nieman as the best year of his life. When I was in the presidential palace with him he repeated that, and he has a very fond remembrance of the Nieman year.

I agree with him that it’s a very valuable program. I was very happy when he paid homage to another Nieman Fellow who was under tremendous attack in Colombia. He was barely allowed to ????????????????? come to the ????????? Nieman: Hollman Morris. When Hollman was selected to be a Nieman, the Americans not only denied a visa for him to come but justified the denial with a provision of the Patriot Act. In a very dangerous country the American government did the stupid thing of marking him as a terrorist because of his journalistic contacts with the FARC. Of course, the Nieman Foundation and, I was secondarily involved, made a very strong campaign for the American government to correct that, which was eventually done, but not without a lot of pressure.

Later on, and there is a video that I’m sure you can find on the web, where he is at a public conference about journalists and the peace process and the compensation to victims of the war. He took advantage of that and paid homage to Hollman Morris, recognizing him as a great journalist and repeating that the Nieman was the best year of his life. That talk made Hollman cry in that video, and you can see he’s so moved, sobbing. It’s very interesting. Hollman and Juan Manuel are not friends, they’re not in the same party or anything like that. Hollman is now a politician, too. He is a city councilor in Bogota.

Robinson offered reflections on Santos in an e-mail Friday:

Juan Manuel became a great friend during our year at Harvard, and our friendship continued uninterrupted right after the Nieman year when he went back to El Tiempo and I went to Buenos Aires as the [The Washington] Post’s South America correspondent. This was the era of the Colombian drug lords, so I had to go to Bogota a lot. Juan Manuel had some executive position at the paper. On one of my first trips to Colombia, he arranged a lunch in the countryside for me and invited all the young movers and shakers in Colombian politics, along with the U.S. ambassador. It was one-stop shopping—in one trip I knew all the important up-and-comers from all sides of the political spectrum. (Present, it turned out, were two future presidents, a future defense minister, a future mayor of Bogota and a future Colombian ambassador to the U.S.). I remember one subsequent trip when I arrived having had no luck in setting up interviews in advance. I mentioned my bad luck to Juan Manuel, and within two hours he had arranged a full schedule for me, somehow getting me in to see the head of the national police, who at the time wasn’t seeing anybody.

I recall that his family was not thrilled when he decided to go into politics; they were like the Sulzbergers or the Grahams in their commitment to high journalistic principles, and did not want their objectivity to be compromised. It must have been hard to argue with his success, however, and I believe the family ultimately sold the paper. I could go on and on about his achievement in negotiating peace with the FARC. I can only imagine his disappointment at the vote rejecting the agreement, and my guess is that his reaction to the Nobel will not be one of personal pride, but of hope that maybe it can get the peace process underway again.

2008 Nieman Fellow Andres Cavelier, a fellow Colombian, expressed a sense of pride:

As a Colombian, I am honored that a Colombian journalist has won the Nobel Peace Prize. Only two Colombians have won a Nobel prize, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Literature) and now Santos. And they both worked early in their careers as journalists, which makes me extremely proud for Colombian journalism.

I met Juan Manuel Santos when I started working as a sportswriter for El Tiempo in 1991. At the time, Juan Manuel was columnist and Managing Editor of El Tiempo, owned back then by his family. As I remember, his column dealt mostly about economic issues but politics was clearly on his mind. Later that year he left journalism to become Minister of Foreign Trade under Presidente Cesar Gaviria. At the time, I remember, he shaved his beard, probably an early move to become more appealing to future voters.

Since leaving El Tiempo, Santos never went back to journalism. Ironically, other members of his family have followed his path: his brother Enrique Santos Calderón, one of Colombia’s best columnists of all times, has now retired and works closely advising Juan Manuel in the peace process; brother-in-law Francisco Santos, also a journalist and [1992] Nieman Fellow, left El Tiempo in 2002 to become VP of President Alvaro Uribe and is now a fierce critic of Juan Manuel’s peace efforts.

I last saw Juan Manuel on Dec. 31, 2015 near Bogotá. I talked briefly with him and [he] appeared to be extremely focused on bringing the peace process to an end. I just didn’t think we would get here so quickly—although it is still in the works.

Your Editor Explains: Back in the early 70’s Santos’ father, then co-publisher of El Tiempo de Bogotá, used to take his young son, Juan Manuel, to the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa yearly reunions in different Latin American cities. As editor of ALA, La Agencia Latinoamericana, I would take some of my children and enjoyed the younguers´conversations and even some of their nightly excursions.

Marco Rubio Scares Democrats

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They use words like “historic” and “charismatic,” phrases like “great potential” and “million-dollar smile.” They notice audience members moved to tears by an American-dream-come-true success story. When they look at the cold, hard political math, they get uneasy.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at a Republican convention in Georgia last week. His Cuban heritage and his youth are expected to help him gain voter support. Credit David Goldman/Associated Press
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at a Republican convention in Georgia last week. His Cuban heritage and his youth are expected
to help him gain voter support. Credit David Goldman/Associated Press

An incipient sense of anxiety is tugging at some Democrats — a feeling tersely captured in four words from a blog post written recently by a seasoned party strategist in Florida: “Marco Rubio scares me.”

What is so unnerving to them at this early phase of the 2016 presidential campaign still seems, at worst, a distant danger: the prospect of a head-to-head general-election contest between Mr. Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Yet the worriers include some on Mrs. Clinton’s team. And even former President Bill Clinton is said to worry that Mr. Rubio could become the Republican nominee, whittle away at Mrs. Clinton’s support from Hispanics and jeopardize her chances of carrying Florida’s vital 29 electoral votes.

Democrats express concerns not only about whether Mr. Rubio, 43, a son of Cuban immigrants, will win over Hispanic voters, a growing and increasingly important slice of the electorate. They also worry that he would offer a sharp generational contrast to Mrs. Clinton, a fixture in American politics for nearly a quarter-century who will turn 69 before the election.

As her supporters recall, Barack Obama beat Mrs. Clinton for the nomination in the 2008 elections after drawing similar contrasts himself.

Patti Solis Doyle, who ran Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign for most of the 2008 contest, said Mr. Rubio “could have the ability to nip away at the numbers for the Democrats.”

Ms. Doyle, the first Hispanic woman to manage a presidential campaign, added that Mr. Rubio could allow Republicans to regain a “reasonable percentage” of the Hispanic vote. In 2012, just 27 percent of Hispanics voted for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

Mr. Rubio “is a powerful speaker,” Ms. Doyle added. “He is young. He is very motivational. He has a powerful story.”

Recognizing how essential it is to win Hispanic support, Mrs. Clinton has gone further in laying out an immigration policy than she has on almost any other issue, saying that she would extend greater protections to halt deportations of people in the United States illegally. She has also hired a former undocumented immigrant to lead her Latino outreach efforts.

Her own strategists, their allies in the “super PACs” working on her behalf and the Democratic Party all say they see plenty of vulnerabilities in Mr. Rubio’s record and his views. And they are trying to shape the perception people have of him while polls show that he is still relatively unknown: Yes, the Democratic National Committee said in a recent memo, Mr. Rubio was a fresh face, but one “peddling a tired playbook of policies that endanger our country, hurt the middle class, and stifle the American dream.”

So far, Democrats who have combed over Mr. Rubio’s voting record in the Senate have seized on his opposition to legislation raising the minimum wage and to expanding college loan refinancing, trying to cast him as no different from other Republicans.

The subtext: He may be Hispanic, but he is not on the side of Hispanics when it comes to the issues they care about.

Democrats will try to use Mr. Rubio’s youth and four-year career in national politics against him, depicting him as green or naïve — a liability at a time when unrest abroad is a top concern. “A Dan Quayle without the experience,” suggested Christopher Lehane, a veteran strategist who has worked for the Clintons.

Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, who is of Mexican heritage, said Democrats would also make an issue of Mr. Rubio’s mixed record on how to overhaul the immigration system: He initially supported a Senate bill to grant people in the United States illegally a path to citizenship, but he later backed down.

Mr. Richardson said that would poison his chances with Hispanic voters. “His own Hispanic potential would defeat him,” he said.

It is also unclear how much Mr. Rubio would appeal to Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and other voters with Latin American ancestry who may not feel much cultural affinity with a Cuban-American.

Still, when many Democrats assess Mr. Rubio’s chances, as nearly a dozen of them did for this article, they put him in the top tier of potential candidates who concern them the most, along with former Gov. Jeb Bush, another Floridian who is courting Hispanics, and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Mr. Rubio’s heritage and his youth could be particularly dangerous to Mrs. Clinton, they said. Each of those points could help neutralize one of her biggest strengths: the opportunity to help elect the first female president, and the experience Mrs. Clinton gained as secretary of state.

Mr. Rubio already appears to be pursuing that strategy. By calling himself a candidate of the “21st century, not the 20th,” he seeks both to turn Mrs. Clinton’s long career against her and to entice voters who may desire a change of direction.

In Florida, Democrats who have watched Mr. Rubio’s rise warn against playing down his strengths.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who lost to Mr. Rubio in a 2010 Senate race after dropping his Republican Party affiliation, said he admired how Mr. Rubio told the story of his immigrant parents — his mother a maid, his father a bartender — and how they worked hard so that he could succeed. “It’s hard to get more compelling than that,” Mr. Crist said.

“I think they do underestimate him,” Mr. Morgan added. “He’s energetic, he’s photogenic, and he will say whatever you want him to say.”

Steve Schale, the Florida strategist who wrote the “Marco Rubio scares me” blog post, said that when he worked for the Democratic leader of the Florida House of Representatives, his boss, Dan Gelber, had a saying about Mr. Rubio’s effect on crowds, and about his sincerity: “Young women swoon, old women pass out, and toilets flush themselves.”

And Mr. Gelber himself recalled the day in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2008 when he and Mr. Rubio, then the speaker of the State House, gave their farewell speeches. He spoke first, followed by Mr. Rubio, as Mr. Gelber’s wife looked on.

“She’s sitting there weeping,” Mr. Gelber recalled, still incredulous. “And I look up, and I mouth, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

Mr. Gelber praised Mr. Rubio’s ability to use his family’s story to convey compassion for people marginalized by society, but he said he believed, as many Democrats do, that this was disingenuous.

“It’s a little maddening when his policies are so inconsistent with that,” Mr. Gelber said. “My head would explode.”

A Rubio-Clinton contest could ultimately come down to Florida. Republicans can ill afford to lose the state if they hope to win the White House. And bleeding Hispanic votes could make Mrs. Clinton’s path much harder.

“Losing a point among whites means winning Hispanics by about 5 percent more just to make up that loss,” Mr. Schale wrote in his memo on Florida’s election demographics. If Democrats continue to lose white voters, he added, Mr. Rubio’s place on the ballot would only complicate matters.

“He should be the one you don’t want to face,” Mr. Schale wrote.

Are the Parties Over?

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partiesWith 100 days left, it is now Clinton versus Trump .We have survived two weeks of the major party conventions, where they picked their champions and unfolded their messages to the electorate. The contrasts between the Democrats and the Republicans couldn’t be greater, making the Latino role clearer regarding who to vote for. But they may have, at the same time, fed a cynicism that could wind up depressing Latino turnout.

The main takeaway in the media about the conventions was that Trump’s message was very dark while Clinton’s was too rosy. Both events tried to humanize their standard bearers given the extremely high unfavorability ratings both have accumulated. The results were mounds of insincerity poured on highly imperfect candidates expressed in the “Never Trump” and “Bernie or Bust” movements that, in the end, went nowhere.

It has become clear that the Republican Party under Trump is banking on its ability to win primarily with the White male vote, largely discarding Latinos and other communities of color except rhetorically. The themes of the Republican National Convention on “law and order,” immigration as a crime issue, Muslims as terrorists, and so on,  all resonated as powerful racial dog whistles.

parties2This was reflected in the sparse Latino presence at the RNC Convention last week. Of the 2,472 delegates, only about 133 or 5 percent were Latino. Of the 72 speakers, only 6, or 9 percent was Latino. Latinos currently comprise about 18 percent of the US population.

The Democrats were much more inclusive of Latinos in their convention. Of the 4,766 delegates attending, 747 were Latinos or 16 percent of the total. Of the speakers at the convention, 19, or 14 percent were Latino. The biggest absence at both conventions was that of Latino musical performers; both events were salsaless.

However, it is interesting that the Republican Party has been more successful in fielding Latino candidates for high-level elected office. The only two Latino state governors are Republicans, as are two of the three Latinos serving in the United States Senate. It is also interesting that despite what some refer to as Democrat´s “Hispandering” Latinos remained the most underrepresented groups in federal government employment (only 8 percent) and even worse off with President Obama’s appointments (only 7 percent Latino).

Regarding the leadership of the Democratic National Committee, on the other hand, Latinos appear well-represented, at least for the time being. Of the ten leadership positions, three are held by Latinos.

It is, therefore, surprising that the 18-member DNC Platform Committee had only one Latino member,  U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois).  Also, while they include representatives from non-elected officials, such as a business owner, the Center for American Progress; Union Theological Seminary and the Arab-American Institute. No Latino organizations were included.

An argument can be made that while the focus has been on Trump and Sanders as unusual political, personal outliers that, at the core of the current electoral instability we are experiencing, is the result of the increasing dysfunction of the American two-party system. The Republican Party completely lost control of its candidate selection function and the Democrats have barely held on to it. For outsiders like the Latino community, this dysfunction creates opportunities to make political gains.

The Republicans are in such disarray that what this party will be morphing into is not knowable at this point. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is finding itself with an unexpectedly competitive election and a strong potential interest on internal reform movement, courtesy of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Under these circumstances, the role of the Latino vote becomes more important than ever in some battleground states and creates a unique opening for demanding a greater decision-making role in both the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy, for which he edits the online information service, The NiLP Report on Latino Policy & Politics, He can be reached at afalcon@latinopolicy.org.     

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