Why Marco Rubio won’t become the first “Latino” President of the United States
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Why Marco Rubio won’t become the first “Latino” President of the United States

He may have only placed third, but Marco Rubio appears to have emerged from the Iowa Caucus as the candidate for sanity in the eyes of many establishment Republicans not yet won over by Donald Trump’s bombast.

With the endorsements for his presidential run pouring in thick and fast however, there is one endorsement conspicuous by its absence. That of Rubio’s fellow Latinos.

Not so popular…

Latino voters are a constituency that Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, might have hoped to have counted on. Although his recent bump in Iowa may yet change the situation, the polls leading up to the caucuses suggest that Rubio’s popularity amongst this group remains lacklustre at best.

One poll taken by MSNBC in December indicated that only 27 percent of Hispanic voters had anything above a ‘somewhat positive’ opinion of Rubio, 19 percent had a negative or somewhat negative opinion and 30 percent didn’t even recognize his name.

In other words Rubio has about as much chance as any of the other Republican contenders of winning the Latino vote.

This may strike some as a surprising result, but as Rose Palomino a veterinarian, of Mexican descent succinctly summed up to Latin Correspondent, it really shouldn’t be because “why would we support Rubio? He’s done nothing for Latinos.”

And it’s a claim that’s pretty hard to deny.

U.S. rights

No issue is more emblematic of the Latino cause than the precarious situation that an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants (in many cases brothers, sisters, parents and children of legitimate U.S citizens) find themselves in, living under the threat of deportation and denied access to services enjoyed by other Americans.

Yet despite Rubio in 2013 originally being a vociferous member of the so called Senate “Gang of 8”,  a bipartisan group that made proposals paving  a route to citizenship for undocumented migrants, Rubio crumbled in the face of criticism from conservatives and went on to disown them, reverting to a staunchly anti-amnesty stance.

If there was ever a better time to distinguish himself as a ‘Latino’ candidate that was it. But he blew it and many people will never forget it.

Perhaps though, it’s slightly unfair to blame Rubio’s lack of popularity on this indiscretion. For even if he were to flip his position on the issue yet again (his recent advocacy for ending programs providing exemptions for deportation in certain cases suggests we may have to wait a while), it still would not fundamentally address the real point of disconnect between Rubio and the Latino community: his political philosophy.

Research by Pew Hispanic Centre indicates that Latino voters are more likely than the general populace to be beneficiaries and supporters of Government programmes like Obamacare, making them natural allies of Democrats. Rubio in contrast has pledged to abolish these programs and distinguishes himself from the Republican field with unwavering opposition to government intervention. Or, at least he does when it comes to issues that Latinos actually care about like health and welfare spending.

On issues that Latinos generally have no concern for, like freezing detente with Iran, being militantly pro-Israel and forging a decidedly neoconservative foreign policy fit for “a new American century” (the old neo-con clarion call now somewhat ominously becoming his campaign tagline) Rubio is quite happy to dish out more taxpayers money. Hence the disconnect.

Such is the yawning gap between Rubio and the Latino voters on many issues, one might be forgiven for forming the impression, as some Hispanic advocacy groups have done, that Rubio is a terrible sell out to the Latino community. Perhaps, however, the real error in understanding is to think there exists a homogenous ‘Latino’ community in the first place -at least politically.

“An unbalanced playing field”

A case in point is the fact that Rubio’s politics -immurement in the military Industrial complex and all- actually make a lot of sense if you are Cuban-American.

Since 1966, Cubans arriving on U.S. shores have enjoyed a nearly automatic right to permanent residency and access to a range of government benefits. Mexicans and other Latin Americans not so much.

So Rubio’s rags to riches story, which tells of how his family fled Cuba, worked hard, played by the rules, and then made real the American dream, is certainly inspiring, and certainly plays well in his power base of Florida where the vast majority of Cuban-Americans reside. But with Mexican-Americans  the story only underlines just how much the rules by which they are expected to play are laid down over an unbalanced playing field.

This is just one factor (along with the small issues of different customs, dialects, national pastimes, geographical environments) that makes for radically different experiences and therefore priorities, held by the different communities of Latin American origin in the U.S.

A “Latino” president?

Mexican-Americans tend to care about immigration reform and healthcare. Cuban-Americans tend to care about economic issues, and, for historic reasons going back to the Cuban Revolution, tend to support a hawkish foreign policy. Somewhere in the middle are millions of Latinos whose family roots are in other countries and who have completely different concerns.  The point is that Latinos are far from being a unified political constituency.

This more than anything explains why, though he certainly doesn’t hide his Hispanic roots, Rubio doesn’t seem interested in being to the Latino community in 2016 what Barack Obama was to the African-American community in 2008.

Although Hispanics are expected to make up 11.9 percent of eligible voters in the 2016 election -a demographic almost equal in size to African Americans (12.4 percent)- the more meaningful statistic is that nearly two thirds of Hispanics are of Mexican decent. To the extent that Rubio ignores the issues affecting this demographic he won’t really be a “Latino” president even if he does become president of the United States.

Will we see a genuine Latino political consciousness emerge in the future? It would be unwise to bet against it. It will, however, probably require something more than vague blandishments or an abstract sense of linguistic affinity.

As Caroline Algarate, a Floridian of Chilean descent laconically mused;  “it is a very superficial way of thinking to say that, just because a candidate speaks Spanish, I am going to vote for them. It won’t convince me.”

See also:

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