May 19, 2015

Readout from Panel on Latino Attitudes toward Foreign Policy

It’s rarely the case that people agreeing with each other is newsworthy. But in the case of foreign policy attitudes expressed by US Latinos and non-Latinos in the most recent Chicago Council Survey, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs concluded that the similarities between the two groups deserve a headline to put to rest unjustified concerns.
At a recent panel discussion at Florida International University in Miami to discuss the implications of the survey results, FIU Professor Eduardo Gamarra, who has done polling work across Latin America, pointed out that throughout history, Americans have held misconceptions about the potential impact of immigrants and those descended from them, even going back generations. “The first Alien & Sedition Act was based on the idea that the impact of foreigners would be negative,” Gamarra said. It’s time to debunk that myth, he said, particularly with Latino populations: “No Latino group has ever supported an enemy of the United States –yet policies assume that they will.”
With Latinos now the largest and fastest growing US minority at over 16 percent of the population, understanding their views is increasingly crucial. “This poll is doing something very important: you are assuming that we as Latinos are important. Not everybody does,” Gamarra added.
A 2014 Chicago Council Survey analysis found that overall, both Latinos and non-Latinos have strikingly similar foreign policy preferences. Both groups support strong US leadership. They feel the United States is the most influential country. They both support alliances, treaties and dialogue. The survey also found common concerns about cybersecurity, nuclear threats, and terrorism; and the importance of US foreign policy supporting US jobs.
To be sure, the survey revealed some differences. A majority of Latinos –54 percent- were more likely to view climate change as a critical threat versus just 32 percent of non-Latinos. They also placed greater priority on combating world hunger. They were more likely to support the United Nations taking a role in addressing world problems. Not surprisingly, the other difference was in their views on immigration, which Latinos were much less likely than others to see as a threat or to view reducing illegal immigration as a key foreign policy priority.
Jose Miguel Cruz, research director at the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, said it made sense that Hispanic and non-Hispanic Americans had similar views on US leadership because Latin Americans consistently show strong support for state institutions, which traditionally have been important actors in public life in Latin America. Latinos support multilateral foreign policy approaches and the United Nations because of their strong feelings in favor of democracy and freedom, said Cruz. Interestingly, he noted that polls in many countries show public opinion to be more strongly in favor of President Obama than of their own presidents –even Venezuela’s virulently anti-US President Hugo Chavez when he was still alive.
Latin Americans also have honored some US presidents for their leadership in the region: “There is always a plaza or street called Kennedy or Roosevelt,” Cruz noted. “Hispanics very much believe in the key role the US should play in the world. Yet he said that stronger support for the United Nations also made sense because Latin Americans also see themselves more as citizens of the world than US citizens do. “They have a legacy of looking out at the world without diminishing the role of the United States,” he said.
Chicago Council Senior Fellow Dina Smeltz theorized that part of the reason for Latinos’ and Latin Americans’ more expansive views was that Latino and Spanish language media tend to take a broader world view than US media.
Yet, Latinos are not represented at the highest levels of US administrations. There are still only a handful of Latino US ambassadors; they include Ambassador Lilian Ayalde in Brazil (formerly US Ambassador to Paraguay), Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte in El Salvador, Ambassador Luis Moreno in Jamaica and Ambassador Carlos Moreno in Belize.
Moreover, Latinos do not share policy agendas across groups. The panelists agreed that a larger sample size of Latinos would help to reveal differences across nationalities.
Both first and second generation Hispanics have historically low levels of representation and voting. Some may impact policy in other ways –including through their influence in their countries of origin. “There is no getting around the influence of Americans on Mexican policy,” said David Duckenfield of the US State Department, noting that four out of ten Mexicans have family members living in the United States.
In the United States, changing demographic trends will make it harder to ignore those voices as white Americans cease to be the majority population as soon as 2040, as the number of eligible voters continues to rise, and as groups like Voto Latino mobilize a new generation of voters. 


Dina Smeltz joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2012 as a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy, and directed the Council’s 2012 survey of American public opinion (see Foreign Policy in the New Millennium).  She has nearly 20 years of experience in designing and fielding international social, political and foreign policy surveys.

As the director of research in the Middle East and South Asia division (2001-2007) and analyst/director of the European division (1992-2004) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department’s Office of Research, Dina conducted over a hundred surveys in these regions and regularly briefed senior government officials on key research findings. Her experience includes mass public and elite surveys as well as qualitative research.  She has written numerous policy-relevant reports on Arab, Muslim and South Asian regional attitudes toward political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.  Her writing also includes policy briefs and reports on the post-1989 political transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and European attitudes toward a wide range foreign policy issues including globalization, European integration, immigration, NATO, and European security.

With a special emphasis research in post-conflict situations (informally referred to as a “combat pollster”), Dina has worked with research teams in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel-Palestinian Territories and in Iraq (2003-2005), where she was one of the few people on the ground who could accurately report average Iraqis impressions of the postwar situation.  In the past three years, Dina has consulted for several NGOs and research organizations on projects spanning women’s development in Afghanistan, civil society in Egypt and evaluating voter education efforts in Iraq.

Dina has an MA from the University of Michigan and a BS from Pennsylvania State University.

Feel free to email Dina with comments or questions at


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