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More than words needed with Latino voters

Jorge Ramos is senior news anchor for the Univision Network Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton received more Latino votes than Sen. Barack Obama in the 50 state primaries and in Puerto Rico.

Jorge Ramos

is senior news anchor for the Univision Network

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton received more Latino votes than Sen. Barack Obama in the 50 state primaries and in Puerto Rico.

Some believe it stemmed from the decades-long tension that has existed between African Americans and Latinos. Others, however, blamed the small, inefficient, and last-minute effort of the Obama campaign to target Hispanic voters.

I recently had an interview with Obama and asked why he thought he lost the Latino vote to Clinton.

"You know, I think it really just had to do with the fact that the Latino vote was less familiar with me than they are with Senator Clinton," Obama said. They were not aware, he said, of his work with the Latino community in Chicago, or that he backed efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants and to improve education programs.

However, what many Latinos do know is that as a member of the Senate, Obama voted for construction of a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico. "If you become president, would you stop the construction of the fence?" I asked.

"I want to figure out what works," he responded.

"But a fence works?" I questioned.

"I don't know yet," he replied.

"But you voted for the fence," I reminded him.

"Well, I understand. I voted for the authorization to start building the fence in certain areas on the border. I think there might be areas where it makes sense and it can actually save lives, if we prevent people from crossing desert areas that are very dangerous," he explained. About 400 people die on that border every year.

Another issue he would address as president concerns the raids and deportations carried out against undocumented immigrants. "I don't believe it is the American way to grab a mother away from her child and deport her without us taking the consequences of that," he said.

Obama did not want to commit himself, as Clinton proposed, to sending Congress an immigration reform bill by the end of his first 100 days in the White House. It is not realistic when he has to resolve first the war in Iraq and the current economic crisis. He said, however, that "what I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support."

Obama has never visited Latin America in all his 46 years of life. He doesn't support the Free Trade Agreement currently being negotiated by the United States and Colombia. In addition, he may suspend or renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico implemented in 1994.

His foreign policy for the region, though, goes beyond that. "There is a natural connection between the United States and Latin America," Obama said.

"When we start ending the war in Iraq, we can refocus our attention . . . in Latin America," he stressed. Then he went down a long list of the things he wants to do in order not to forget the region (as President Bush did after Sept. 11, 2001).

"I will initiate talks with our enemies in Cuba and Venezuela," he said, "[lift] travel restrictions for family members in Cuba . . . I want to join with countries like Brazil to work in clean energy . . . I voted for the Peru Free Trade Agreement but I oppose the Colombian Free Trade Agreement until I have confidence that union organizers are not being murdered . . . I think you have to put an end to this kind of paramilitary operations."

And what about Venezuela's Hugo Chavez? Is he a threat to U.S. national security and to the rest of the continent?

"I do think that he is a threat, but I think he is a manageable threat," Obama answered. "What I have said is that we should have direct diplomacy with Venezuela . . . and with all countries in the world."

Obama said that it is the U.S. relationship with Mexico that he wants to repair first.

"I think it's very important to reach out to the Mexican government in a way that, I think, this administration has failed to do. And to find out what do we need on the other side of the border to encourage economic development and job creation there," he said.

More than 1,000 people in Mexico have died so far this year in the war among drug cartels. Obama knows this and believes the demand for drugs in the United States is also part of the problem.

"I would not legalize marijuana, but I do think that we have to reduce the amount [of drugs] here in the United States," he said.

Obama studied Spanish in high school and for two years in college. "My Spanish used to be OK," he said. Now, however, he has all but forgotten it.

He will often echo the slogan made famous by United Farm Workers founders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta:

"Si se puede"

("Yes, we can").

But he is aware that saying a few words in Spanish is not enough to win 10 million Hispanic voters in the November presidential election, or the goodwill of 550 million Latin Americans.

Finally, trying to show he would be a president of action, not words, Obama said he wanted to make his first trip to Latin America very soon. "I would love to go . . . between now and November."