The Candidates and Latin America: Foreign Policy in Our “Backyard”

Although hailed as the United States’ “backyard,” Latin America is merely a blip on the foreign policy radar in the 2016 presidential campaign season. Ahead of the November election, questions on candidates’ foreign policy positions have mainly focused on the Middle East, with tough debates surrounding ISIS, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second and third in line for candidates’ foreign policy concerns seem to be the growing economic influence of China and Russia’s political aggression. However, three issues regarding Latin America have been widely discussed by most campaigns: Immigration reform, normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, and NAFTA. The candidates’ stances on the issues vary, not only between political parties but within them as well.


With an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S., immigration is no small issue. The two parties are vehemently divided on immigration reform; Democrats often promote a “pathway to citizenship,” while Republicans tend to favor securitization of the (southern) border.

As the son of a migrant from Poland, Bernie Sanders’ proposed immigration policy emphasizes justice and human rights, with plans to keep families together and protect workers from exploitation. He plans to build on the Obama Administration’s immigration reforms by expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans programs, which exempt immigrants who fall within these categories and under other certain guidelines from deportation. Sanders will not wait for Congress to act; instead, his policy outlines a plan to take executive action within the first 100 days of his administration. Sanders specifically addresses the flow of unaccompanied child migrants, primarily from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. While it reached a peak in 2014, the U.S. is still dealing with the repercussions of the massive influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children. Sanders condemns the deportation of these children, amid reports that children who are returned to their home countries are being killed by the same gang-incited violence they fled.

Hillary Clinton also supports comprehensive immigration reform. Her proposed immigration plan includes creating a pathway to citizenship, closing family and private detention centers, and upholding President Obama’s previous executive orders on immigration reform. Clinton also plans to provide deportation relief for DREAMers, DAPA candidates, and to “extend those actions to additional persons with sympathetic cases,” although she does not specify how these cases would be evaluated. As a senator, she co-sponsored the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Although Clinton mainly addresses the legal aspects of immigration reform, she also emphasizes that immigration is a “family issue” and wants to work to keep law-abiding immigrant families together.

The presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump, proposes the (both financially and politically) radical and improbable solution of building a wall to seal the border with Mexico. Trump also plans to force Mexico pay for it, by refusing to process remittances from relatives and friends in the U.S. Trump states, “ It’s an easy decision for Mexico: make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion [in remittances] continues to flow into their country year after year.” According to experts, the proposed 2,000-mile wall would be the largest infrastructure project in the U.S. since President Eisenhower’s highway system. Additionally, while Trump estimates the cost of the wall at about $10 billion, the same experts state that it could actually cost up to $25 billion and would take, at minimum, four to five years to complete. Furthermore, it is unclear if it is feasible or even legal to halt remittances. To make matters worse, Trump has also come under fire for racist comments, equating Mexican immigrants with gang members, drug traffickers, and rapists.

The Democratic candidates propose building on current policy and enacting reforms to allow more immigrants legal status. Their policies focus on families staying together and using immigrants’ skills to benefit the country through education and training programs. On the other hand, Trump’s plan entails closing the southern border with a massive infrastructure project. His proposal prioritizes heightened security, while ignoring the humanitarian situation of current and future immigrants.


President Obama’s actions to normalize relations and lift the embargo against Cuba have become major topics in most candidates’ foreign policy proposals. Since the process began in December of 2014, Cuba has been removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List, embassies in both countries have been re-opened, and direct mail flights have been re-established. Ongoing efforts are working to lift the trade embargo and allow greater freedom for Americans wishing to travel to the island.

Sanders has long supported the normalization of relations with Cuba. Furthermore, in an interview from 1985, Sanders commends Castro’s reforms to improve access to universal health care and education. While Sanders has expressed hope that Cuba move towards a more democratic system of governance, he has also emphasized the need for the U.S. to respect Cuba’s sovereignty. This last statement is evident of Sander’s non-interventionist position, and he has oftencriticized the U.S.’s habit of toppling left-leaning regimes in Latin America (from 1898 to 1994 there were at least 41 U.S. interventions in the region – an average of one every 28 months). More recently, in 2014, Sanders traveled to Cuba to discuss human rights, trade, and health care as part of an official U.S. delegation.

Clinton’s position has slowly shifted from her tenure as First Lady to her more recent position as Secretary of State for the Obama Administration. As First Lady, she supported the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law, that prevents the embargo from being lifted until Cuba fulfills certain requirements, including fair elections, freeing political prisoners, and freedom of the press. In her 2008 presidential campaign, Clinton maintained her position in opposition to lifting the embargo, however she added a caveat, stating, “As president I would be ready to reach out and work with a new Cuban government, once it demonstrated that it truly was going to change that direction.” Later, as Secretary of State, Clinton recommended that Obama reconsider the embargo, as it “wasn’t achieving its goals.” In July of 2015, Clinton made a speech in Miami, a highly symbolic location due to the number of Cuban immigrants living there, in which she declared, “The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all.”

Although not entirely clear or detailed on his position, it appears that Trump is not opposed to the normalization of relations, stating, “Ultimately, it’s going to be good.” However, in the same interview, he went on to express that, “we could have had a better deal, a much stronger deal,” though he does not reveal what a stronger deal might entail. Trump’s lukewarm views on Cuba are consistent with his campaign’s lack of clear cut policy positions, likely in an attempt to appeal to as many voters as possible. Earlier in the campaign season, other Republican candidates criticized Trump, as they generally opposed lifting the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba.

The candidates express varying degrees of enthusiasm for normalizing relations with Cuba. Clinton and Sanders would build on the Obama Administration’s policy and work to promote liberal democracy in the country through opening economic markets. Sanders comments reinforce his outsider political identity, as it is quite unlikely that a member of the establishment would have commented positively on Cuba thirty years ago. Clinton, on the other hand, has changed her views several times. While some may say it is due to a sincere progression in thought, her inconsistency on other issues raises the question of whether she is playing political games and leveraging public opinion to capitalize on votes. Trump, in keeping with his lack of foreign policy experience, or perhaps interest, has said little on the issue; however it is surprising that he shows even vague support for the same position as the Democratic candidates as the two parties have been extremely divided on issues so far in this election.


The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), enacted in 1994, is a multilateral agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada to increase economic cooperation. NAFTA has been highly controversial; critics say it causes job losses in the U.S. and unfavorable working conditions abroad, while supporters respond that it will actually help create jobs and spur economic growth across the region. Currently, most experts conclude that NAFTA has been net positive for the U.S., although it has failed to deliver on some big promises made in its early years. However, it is also important to note that, amid increased globalization and technology use across different sectors of the economy, it is difficult to distinguish the direct effects of NAFTA on various economies.

Sanders strongly opposes NAFTA, blaming it for increased poverty in Mexico, loss of jobs, and an influx of undocumented migrants in the U.S. His plan is to rewrite trade deals such as NAFTA to promote fair trade in lieu of free trade. Sanders has been consistent in his position, stating in a debate in early March, “I was on a picket line in the early 1990s against NAFTA, because you didn’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.” While Sanders’ interpretation of NAFTA may be a bit exaggerated, his critiques are notunsubstantiated, as poor labor conditions in Mexico and shifts in industry in both countries remain as challenges.

Clinton has a complicated history with trade deals. She supported NAFTA as the First Lady during Bill Clinton’s Administration. As a Senator, Clinton supported free trade, as long as it “can increase living standards and foster…economic development for all parties.” In 2007, during her first presidential run, she remarked that NAFTA was a mistake because it did not deliver on many promises that were made in 1994, which, as discussed previously, is mostly true. As Secretary of State, Clinton embraced free trade with the beginnings of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which she has since turned against. Her stance as a current presidential candidate has been fuzzy; she does not openly support NAFTA and other free trade agreements, but she does not decry them as middle-class and job destroying plans, either. This is another case, similar to Cuba, of questioning whether Clinton’s change of heart is due to gradual belief progression, or, as is likelier in this case due to her sudden turn against TPP, an attempt to round up votes.

Trump also opposes NAFTA, as he believes it is destroying the U.S. manufacturing industry. In an interview in which Trump was asked how he would respond to an American car company that wished to open a plant in Mexico, he stated that he would charge the company a 35 percent tax on each product that was then sent back into the U.S. However, this measure is illegal as it directly violates NAFTA and disregards the fact that only Congress can establish separate tax rates. In another interview, Trump said, “I am all for free trade, but it’s got to be fair.” These statements underscore Trump’s tendency to ignore the details of economic policy, a habit that could prove dangerous in the global finance market.


The foreign policy positions of the candidates represent a wide range of experiences, interests, and perceptions. Clinton, having served as Secretary of State, is by far the most qualified candidate from a foreign policy standpoint, however her record in Latin America is stained by revelations that she played a role in the 2009 Honduran coup d’état. Sanders remains fervently committed to his “diplomacy first” and non-interventionist beliefs, especially in Latin America, and often connects foreign policy with reducing inequality and promoting social services – two core points of his domestic campaign. Finally, Trump’s proposals are largely infeasible due to factors such as cost and legality, and his discriminatory comments toward Mexicans and other Latinos are concerning. It seems that the only issue the candidates might be able to agree on is their condemnation of NAFTA, which, in reality, is not the catch-all to blame a stagnant economy and loss in industry jobs on that they want it to be.

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

About Gretchen Cloutier

Gretchen is a senior with a double major in International Relations and Economics and a minor in Spanish Language and Area Studies. She is a Staff Writer for The Americas column, and spent a semester abroad in Costa Rica. Outside of the World Mind, you can find her playing ultimate frisbee or sipping coffee at the Dav on American University's campus.