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George Bush & Hispanics: An eight year assessment

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George W. Bush came into office in January 2001 as the first U.S. president in well over a hundred years to have received fewer popular votes than the candidates who lost. Nationwide, Democrat Al Gore received half a million more votes than Bush.

The Electoral College phenomenon and the closeness of the Florida vote made it happen. The contentious count in that state, primarily in three counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach), dragged on for a month after the election. The recount and the process were challenged by Gore until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the official Florida numbers, which favored Bush by about 500 votes, would stand.

Cuban Americans in South Florida immediately and cleverly took much credit for George Bush's victory. Hence, he came into office reminded by his brother Jeb, then governor of that state, that Hispanics (read Cubans) had made him president.

President Bush granted Cuban Americans two things:
1)    The U.S. policy toward Cuba would stand; in fact, it would become more draconian. At the insistence of Jeb Bush, it gave the Cuban American community veto power not only over Cuba policy but over U.S. policy in Latin America, and
2)    It ensured that the “right” thinking Cuban Americans would be appointed to the Administration positions.

Notably, Mel Martínez was selected as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, followed later by another Cuban American, Carlos Gutiérrez, to head the Department of Commerce. One controversial appointment was Otto Reich, the hawk and hardliner Cuban American, as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America. He became the gatekeeper of U.S.-Cuba policy at State. His appointment did not please Colin Powell. Reportedly responding to Powell’s entreaties, the Senate two years later refused to approve Reich's appointment.

Martínez began periodic luncheon meetings of Cuban-American senior appointees to promote other Cubans and review and update the Cuban-American agenda. The Díaz Balart brothers in Congress, Lincoln and Mario, made certain the Administration was held to its commitment to the Cuban-American agenda.

As for Mexican Americans, George Bush came into office as governor of Texas, a border state, possessing more familiarity with Mexico than most past presidents. His personal friendship with Mexico’s newly elected president, Vicente Fox, who had been governor of the Mexico state of Guanajuato, created high expectations. Specifically, the first out-of-the-country trip W took was to Mexico, not Canada, as had been customary. It was widely hailed.

In the 2001 election, Bush had received a sizable amount — over 30% — of the Texas Mexican vote as well as the usual Republican majority of the Cuban vote. Bush's campaign use of his “kitchen Spanish” greatly conveyed that he was earnest about the growing Hispanic vote. He readily appointed Alberto Gonzáles, a fellow Texan, as his White House Counselor Later Bush appointed Gonzáles as U.S. Attorney General, the highest Cabinet position in history ever held by a Latino. But Gonzáles left the AG's office virtually disgraced because of the politicization of the Justice Department.

Bush appointed another Hispanic Texan, Tony Garza, as Ambassador to Mexico. Then he selected Richard Cardona, a Puerto Rican medical doctor, as Surgeon General. Overall, the theme that linked Hispanics to Bush during the first nine months of his administration was comprehensive immigration reform. This derived from his meetings and discussions with Fox. As late as the eve of 9/11 the Administration appeared willing to move on immigration reform, but that was not to be.

It should be pointed out that the Mexican-American community, which comprises about two-thirds of the nation’s 50 million Hispanics, was the only Latino group attentive to this in a significant way. Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens and Cubans have a mechanism under the Cuban Adjustment Act to become legal as soon as they set foot on U.S. soil. Neither Cubans nor Puerto Ricans had immigration reform on their agenda. And Central Americans, another sizable group, have had scant political strength since the vast majority of them are not eligible to vote.

Midway through W's second term, the Administration finally screwed up the courage to back a legislative solution to immigration reform. It was quickly defeated and Bush retreated from any further attempts. Many said he joined the issue too late and did not expend enough effort. At that point, Democrats in Congress were beginning to shy away from the whole immigration issue, while the GOP became even more openly strident against any legislation that would “regularize” undocumented immigrants.

Immigration discussion or debate was glaringly absent from the presidential campaign starting in 2007. Both parties ducked the issue and readily concluded it was a "lose-lose issue."In sum, the Bush Administration may have initially intended to wrangle with immigration reform, to reach out to Latin America in a positive way, and openly welcome the Latino population into the Grand Ole Party. But the reverse happened. The nativist, almost bigoted factions of the party began attacking the immigrant community. The overall Latino community sensed that the anti-immigrant sentiment was rapidly becoming anti-Latino and racist.

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The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (all 21 are Democrats) and the Latino Republican group in Congress (all four from Florida) did not unite and counter forcefully this increasing threat to the Latino population. Overall, appointments and promotion of Latinos in the Bush Administration continued to lag behind the Clinton record. There were just three appointments in eight years to the Cabinet. An attempt to name a Hispanic judge, Miguel Estrada, to the Federal Appeals Court was blocked by Hispanic liberal activist groups and members of Congress). And merely three Hispanics were given political appointments as ambassadors

Perhaps even worse was that in Bush’s first term only one Latino career foreign service officer was appointed ambassador. In the second term it was marginally better: Three Latinos, including two women, were named to be Chiefs of Mission.
Worst for Latinos were the numbers of General or Flag rank officers in the active duty service in the Defense Department. Of the approximately 1.2 million active duty personnel in the U.S. Armed Forces, 15% to 16% are Latino. Most are in combat arms. The total General or equivalent rank officers of African American background is 26 and the diminishing number of Latinos is a dismal three.

The senior executive service (SES) of the Federal Civil Service has a definite paucity of Latinos, and the Administration paid little heed. Some observers opine that Hispanics do not traditionally resort to legal or court action, thus allowing the situation to continue. Both African Americans and women have made enormous strides in improving their representation in these ranks.

One can conclude that the Bush Administration saw no penalty for not improving the Latino lot in government. No real leadership was ever offered. In terms of domestic agenda, the Bush Administration treated Latinos as mostly small or medium-size business types and held out tax breaks to all, and assumed Latinos would partake.

No Child Left Behind was hailed by many as directly helping the Latino community, but many critics fault the program for its dire deficiencies in funding and timely expansion. One can also conclude that the Bush Administration assumed Latinos are socially conservative; hence they would join the ranks of the GOP willingly.

The fact is that most Latinos may be somewhat conservative in values, but they are spooked by the “base of the GOP.” Evangelical determinist, anti-immigrant and anti-Latino types persist in their attacks on poor people and ethnic minorities. Latinos expected to have a welcoming, inclusive and caring party that was promised by Bush when he was governor of Texas and in his presidential campaign rhetoric. Plainly, the Bush Administration did not live up to expectations for Latinos.

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