Michael Shifter throws up his hands with regard to the campaign rhetoric on Latin America during the Republican primary debates, and the stubborn refusal to have anything resembling a rational conversation about the region. He gets this just right.
To be sure, there are ample reasons to debate Cuba, along with other fiery issues like Venezuela and Iran's growing role in the region. But such debates should be anchored in facts and realities, and put in perspective. Across Latin America, there is a broad perception that Cuba occupies a disproportionate place on the U.S. policy agenda, the product of pressures from Florida's Cuban-American community. Washington is viewed as similarly obsessed with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who may be a nuisance and not a terribly constructive force in his country but whose regional influence has markedly declined in the past several years.
Latin Americans believe Iran's moves in the region should be closely watched, but that, given their hard-earned democratic peace and prosperity, they do not offer fertile terrain for nefarious, destabilizing acts. They further believe that Washington should be careful not to exaggerate Iran's influence in the region, as Santorum did when he said, "Iran is organizing a Latin terror network." Within an increasingly self-confident and assertive Latin America, Newt Gingrich's reference in Florida to Iran's "overt violation" of the (long-defunct) Monroe Doctrine must have sounded especially outlandish and insulting.
The strong message being sent is that there are huge threats and the United States must swoop in and face them to save Latin Americans. Chances are very high that following such a strategy would make the U.S. less secure and more isolated.
Maybe I'm a hopeless dreamer. In the current political climate, is it even possible to have a serious debate about what the United States should be doing in Latin America? Does anyone care? It surely didn't happen in Florida, but perhaps it will in other primary contests, or in the general campaign. Like Newt Gingrich, we all have the right to fantasize.
The answer, sad to say, is no. Taken as a whole, it is foreign policy based on facts long past their expiration date and conspiracy theories.