The Miami Herald
August 5, 2007
One in an occasional series looking at the U.S. presidential candidates' views on Latin America.
Here's what I thought after an interview on immigration and hemispheric affairs with Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney: He knows Latin America better than most of his rivals, yet at the same time he would be the least-liked U.S. candidate in the region.
Romney, the millionaire former Massachusetts governor who has strong support within the conservative wing of the Republican Party, prides himself on being the only Republican candidate with a Spanish-language website, a formal team of advisors on Latin American affairs (which includes former State Department head of hemispheric affairs Roger Noriega) and a staff that regularly puts out statements on Venezuela, Cuba and other regional issues.
Romney told me that his father was born in Mexico -- his family had founded a Mormom Church community there -- and that the youngest of his five sons, Craig, spent two years in Chile as a church missionary. Romney himself traveled at least a dozen times to Latin America during his years as head of the Bain Capital venture capital firm, he said.
''The investments for the company that I started, Bain Capital, came largely from Latin America,'' Romney said. ``My largest single investors came from El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia and Guatemala. And so I feel a deep kinship to people in Latin America.''
Yet, among the front-running candidates of both parties, Romney is adopting the most hard-line positions on immigration, Venezuela and Cuba -- a stance that is diametrically opposed to that of most Latin American countries.
OPPOSED REFORM BILL
On immigration, Romney has opposed President Bush's recent immigration reform bill, claiming that it would amount to an ''amnesty for illegal immigrants.'' And Romney is a strong supporter of the U.S. fence on the border with Mexico.
''We welcome immigration,'' he told me, 'but it's legal immigration we promote, not illegal immigration. In my view, to those who have come here illegally, we should say: `You are welcome to get in line with everyone else who wants to become a permanent resident, or a citizen, but there should be no special pathway for virtue of having come here illegally.' ''
Asked whether he is calling for the deportation of the 12 million undocumented workers already in this country, Romney said that ``I am not looking for a massive deportation. . . . Some would receive temporary visas. . . . There would be a period of transition, where people would be able to remain here and complete the sale of homes, or finishing schools.''
When I asked about Venezuela, Romney criticized Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama for saying that he would meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in his first year in office.
''Barack Obama made a huge error,'' Romney said. ``In my first year, I'd look to sit down with leaders of countries who are our friends, [Colombia's Alvaro] Uribe, [Mexico's Felipe] Calderón, [Chile's Michelle] Bachelet.''
Asked how he would deal with Chávez, Romney said that ''Chávez personally is a buffoon.'' But he said that ``the right approach is not one of combating him. It is instead supporting his neighbors who are our friends, and making sure we finally pass the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and Peru, and build a relationship with Brazil.''
On Cuba, Romney said he supports ''continuing the isolation of the Castro brothers'' and would strictly adhere to the U.S. Helms-Burton law that bars U.S. presidents from relaxing U.S. sanctions on Cuba until after the island holds free elections.
My opinion: Romney's proposal that the 12 million undocumented workers -- most of them Hispanics -- leave the country is music to the ears of anti-immigration zealots, but is totally unrealistic. And his hard-line stances on Cuba and Venezuela are more of the same rhetoric we have been hearing from the White House in recent years.
I'm not sure whether Romney strongly believes in these positions, or is only trying to win the conservative votes he needs to secure the Republican nomination. (His record as Massachusetts governor suggests he is less of a hard-liner than he sounds now.) Either way, if he were elected, he would be very popular in U.S. conservative circles, and a pretty lonely man in the rest of the hemisphere.